“Metamorphoses in Amber”
by Tony Pi
Darkness was my cloak, and the sounds of nighttime London masked the whispers of my trespass. I knelt by the skylight and used my trick-shadowbox to tap into the townhouse’s security system. The Chrysalis V was nigh impossible to crack…unless, of course, you designed it in the first place. In a former body I had been Rafe Sali, security guru and inventor of the Chrysalis system, and I had embedded a backdoor deep in the code for just such an opportunity. It was a cinch with the algorithms in the handheld shadowbox to override the alarm, unlock the skylight, and disarm the sensor-web in the library below.
The scent of myrrh teased me from the open skylight like a pitcher plant seducing a fly. We Elect were fascinated with all things insectoid, and I had gambled on the Chrysalis name to pique the interest of my ancient rival Mantis. Still, I wouldn’t put it past her to lure me to London with tips of a lost Fabergé. Mantis was cunning and resourceful. Just as I knew her weaknesses, she knew mine. One thing remained a constant in our ancient feud, true since the days when she had been Nottingham and I, Little John: my love of stealing her ill-gotten treasures.
I pulled out my pendant, holding the virgin amber between my fingers. It was electric to the touch. In the moonlight, I could barely make out its leafhopper inclusion. The insect’s metamorphic energy, caught and distilled in the amber for millions of years, roiled within. We called it Lightning.
I meditated on the gem, imprinting my current sense of self, my instar, onto the outer matrix of the amber. I tucked the necklace back, snug against my chest. The Lightning prickled my bare skin, a minor irritation. If I got injured, I would use the pendant or the backup piece in my pocket to restore my shape as art dealer Felix Lea. However, I was loathe to activate the metamorphoses needlessly. Any change, whether a total moult or minor maintenance, carried risks: unintentional morphs, hidden medical time bombs, and even death. Though I was a skilled shifter, I preferred to rely on a single body until age, injury or plot forced me into another moult.
The shadowbox showed no guards in view of surveillance cameras, but hardly proof that the house was empty. I divided the shadowbox unit into two, leaving half connected to the security system but taking the remote.
I rappelled into the library and scanned the room for potential escape routes before unhooking the line. One door and two grand windows that gave spectacular views of the other multi-million pound townhouses on Cheyne Row.
My penlight revealed the decor to be Victorian with a dash of rococo. The books lining the shelves shimmered silver and gold, with volumes ranging from Shakespeare through Machiavelli to Nietzsche.
Mantis had been Machiavelli, once, before he became she.
Another Elect, Antlion, owed me a favour and repaid me with the location of the Fabergé, supposedly in Mantis’s library safe. I stole across the room, knelt in front of the mock fireplace, and pressed the trick brick, left back corner, fourth down. The back façade slid up to reveal the safe. My hacks tricked the timed lock and retrieved the combination with an algorithm. Child’s play.
However, it seemed too easy, this heist, my centuries of experience and technological tricks notwithstanding. Dread flowed through my veins, the kind that plagued every burglar in the history of time yet thrilled us nonetheless. I took a deep breath and opened the safe door.
No poisoned darts or hissing gas. Good. My penlight revealed the treasure within, resting on a red silk pillow: golden heraldic lions supporting an egg enameled white and blue. I smiled. The jeweler marks confirmed it to be the 1903 Danish Jubilee Imperial Easter Egg, lost since the Russian Revolution.
I hooked the shadowbox remote onto my belt and took my gloves off to better handle the fragile Egg. I didn’t care if I left fingerprints; it would take a mere spark of Lightning to scramble them. I sealed the Fabergé inside the air-tight and armoured shoulder case, letting the smart-foam cradle the treasure. As a final gesture, I flicked a calling card, a plain white business card emblazoned with an emerald woodcut print of a stylized flea, into the empty safe.
As I slung the case over my shoulder, the door slammed open. Having no intention to be caught like a fly in honey, I grabbed a poker and tumbled towards the nearest window, confident I would survive the three-storey fall. But before I could smash the windows, a bullet flew past my ear and shattered a pane of glass. “Next shot’s through the heart,” said a man in a Polish accent, perhaps ten steps behind me. Probably Mantis’s henchman Nicodem Walczak, an ex-military operative whom I knew by reputation only. “Drop the poker and turn around.”
I lowered the poker in my right hand but surreptitiously pressed my left thumb against the shadowbox’s touchpad, letting it scan my print and activate a silent countdown.
Three. Two. One. The charge inside the other half of the trick-shadowbox, still attached to the security system on the roof, detonated. The minor explosion provided the distraction I needed. With the shadowbox no longer blocking the system, all hell broke loose. When the alarm shrieked, I swung the poker to shatter the window’s remaining glass panels before hurling myself from the building.
Shards of glass cut into my flesh and I fell three storeys. I had built this instar with the reflexes of an acrobat, and I relied upon them now to save me. I cushioned my fall as best I could, but the jarring impact broke my left shinbone. I stifled a cry and focused on the amber against my chest, filtering a measure of Lightning through my imprint of self. My skin tingled, my sinews burned. The power stitched my cuts closed and knitted my bones back together, fitting my body to the blueprint of the lithe Felix Lea.
I pulled myself up. Hoping that the poor lighting would hide me, I sprinted down Cheyne Row towards the Thames, ignoring the stares of passers-by. As I raced across the last boulevard towards my speedboat at Cadogan Pier, pain exploded in my upper back and knocked the wind out of me.
I had been shot.
I stumbled to the edge of the Embankment and fell into the river. The gunshot wound and the chill of the Thames water nearly overwhelmed my senses, but I fought to keep my wits about me. This bullet had pierced my right lung. I had to stop the bleeding, fast. I unleashed the Lightning in the amber, electrifying my body. My regenerating flesh forced out fragments of lead, repairing my lung while burst blood vessels and torn muscles stitched back together.
But one piece of amber wasn’t enough. I had been shapeshifting at an extraordinary rate, costing more Lightning than a slow, controlled moult would require. I had burnt off some of the pendant’s stored power when I fixed my leg, and now the gunshot wound demanded even more. I grabbed the spare amber in my pocket. With no time to prime it, I sucked the power straight from its heart. To draw upon Lightning without an instar imprint was as deadly as juggling live grenades blind, but I had no choice. I chained the raw power to the current metamorphosis and willed it to heal me.
While the wound ousted the bullet fragments before it closed, I was running out of air. I shed my shoes and my heavier gear but kept the shoulder case, swimming as far away from shore as I could before surfacing to gulp down air. I swam for the south bank, glad to have escaped Mantis’s trap with another of her treasures. I had won another battle…or so I thought.
Shivering, I hid in the shadows at Battersea Park, wrung out my clothes and activated the homing device hidden inside the shoulder case. Five long minutes later, an innocuous blue Volkswagen Beetle pulled up near my hiding spot. My partner-in-crime, Thomas Thickett, rolled down his window. “What’s the word, guv?”
The password was our routine security measure to confirm my identity even if I took a new face. “Enkidu, Thicks.”
“Right. Get in, Felix.” Thicks drove while I toweled myself dry and struggled with a fresh set of clothes in the tight confines of the car. My partner was a ‘fixer’ without equal: he could fence anything, find anything, and cover his tracks with aplomb. For someone like me, who might need a new identity fast, Thicks was a godsend. Although he wasn’t Elect and hadn’t the talent, I trusted him with my life, or more accurately, lives. “Back to Hathersage Mews, then?” he asked.
I grunted. “Yeah, I hurt like hell. Take care of the Egg for me, will you?”
” ‘Course. You keeping it?” He adjusted his rear-view mirror.
“No.” I patted the Fabergé’s carrying case. I rarely kept what I stole. I suspected Mantis could care less about the Fabergé, as her true goal had been to capture or kill me. I could sell the Egg to a private collector and donate the profits to charity, as I often did, but I wanted to goad Mantis by putting the item back into the public eye. “Have it mysteriously appear at the British Museum. Let them take the credit.”
Even after Thicks dropped me off, I was still shivering. My head was pounding and I hurt all over, but I shrugged it off as a consequence of my recent shapeshift and bloody-cold swim. I ditched my clothes and stumbled into the shower, letting the bliss of hot water cascade over me. Only after I had washed away the stink of the Thames did I first notice the rash on my arms.
I dried off and inspected the rest of my body with a mirror, wondering if more of the rash hid under the mat of dark hair on my chest or on my back. As far as I could tell, it hadn’t spread beyond my forearms, but my lymph nodes were swollen. A thermometer confirmed I was running a high fever. Something had gone quite wrong.
I slumped into the leather chair in my cedar-and-emerald den and gazed at the painting of Sherwood Forest. We Elect rarely got sick. Each time we made a new body, Lightning made our immune system stronger. My first thought was poison: had Walczak laced the bullets with a toxin? My attention had been on physical injuries. But on further reflection, I realized when I had seen these symptoms before. The same illness had befallen Mantis a century ago. The Widowing.
Only a small group of humans could tap the Lightning inside amber, moulting old bodies like a cicada shed its shell. We called ourselves the Elect, after the Greek word for amber: electron. We could re-design our bodies to our whims, even reverse the aging process. However, biological sex could not be changed beyond deliberately induced hormonal imbalances.
With one odd exception. A strange disease sometimes afflicted male members of the Elect: an uncontrollable and irreversible transformation from man to woman. Curiously, the female Elect seemed immune to a sex change. Since the earliest days, this transformation had been called the Widowing, so named because it meant the death of the man and new life for the woman he had become. It struck without warning and had no known cure.
Trembling, I poured myself a glass of brandy. I did not want to be a woman. I had been born male, raised as a boy, lived centuries as a man’s man. Though I had nothing but enlightened attitudes towards women, it was antithetical to my very being to even imagine that I would become female.
I remembered when Mantis Widowed. Once, he had been a man who inspired dark legends in every age. Now Widowed, she seemed content with her amber mining empire. While I did not bemoan the seeming retirement of such a formidable rival, I couldn’t decide whether the Widowing softened Mantis, or if she had simply become subtler in her methods.
I tossed back the brandy and pulled out the two pieces of amber. Both had gone dark, their energies spent. Did I bring this disaster on myself by tapping the second amber raw? Had my luck simply run out?
Someone among the Elect must know how to stop the Widowing, but who? Cicada? Probably still underground. Scarab? A mind as old as Egypt and an ego to match, but he rarely divulged his secrets without exacting a devilish price.
That left beautiful, spectacular Spider. She was one of the oldest among us, the most beautiful woman in each generation since the days of Babylon. She had been Nefertiti, Helen of Troy, Guinevere, and others. Clever and irresistible, Spider’s knowledge of history was also unrivaled, and the secrets entrusted to her innumerable. I smiled, remembering our one wild night of passion in Venice. Last I heard, Spider was spending an instar as Professor Ariana Strand, a paleoentomologist at NYU, but I wouldn’t find Spider in New York this weekend. Like Mantis, she would be at the Fourth World Congress on Amber and Its Inclusions in Saint Petersburg.
I speed-dialed Thicks’s number as I was opening the safe behind the Sherwood painting. When Thicks answered, I used the next password on our list. “It’s me again. Kato.”
A pause. “Felix? I almost didn’t recognize your voice.”
Was the Widowing starting to affect my pitch? I cleared my throat. “Nevermind that. I have to go to Saint Petersburg. Call the airport and ready my jet, will you?”
” ‘Course, guv. When will you be back?”
“Honestly, I don’t know.” I grabbed the right passport from a tall, neat stack and a fresh piece of amber from my collection. “I’m not even sure what I’ll look like next.”
“Not again.” Thicks sighed. “Stick with cloak-and-dagger passwords, then?”
“Right. Trust the password, not the face or voice.” I pondered whether I should warn him that I might be a different gender the next time we met, but decided against it. Why concede defeat so soon? “Take care, Thicks.”
“You too, guv.”
I hung up. I unhooked the expended amber pendant from my chain and replaced it with a new piece. I was about to toss the two darkened ambers into the safe but thought better of it. Perhaps the gems could tell Spider why I was Widowing. I tried to imprint the new amber with my Felix Lea construct, but the persona failed to crystallize, meaning any energy I drain from the amber would be raw. In any case, I didn’t know if tapping more Lightning would be wise.
I slid open the mirrored closet door, pulling out a dark green long-sleeved shirt. As I changed, I examined my reflection. The hair on my chest was growing lighter, while my five o’clock shadow had faded to peach fuzz. The rash was starting to spread up my arms. I cursed and grabbed the keys to my Ferrari. I only hoped I could reach Spider in time.
On the plane to Saint Petersburg, I called the Grand Hotel Europe, the venue of the Amber Conference, via satellite phone. Spider was registered under her alias, but the concierge was holding her calls. I left a message in Russian for her to contact me as soon as possible. “It’s Felix Lea, regarding the health of Bernstein’s widow. Tell her she needs to call before it’s too late. I’ll be in town in four hours.” Spider ought to catch my use of the German word for amber, Bernstein.
I barely cleared Customs at Pulkovo Airport with my current passport, and if I had sweated any more they might have thrown me into quarantine. That would have been disastrous, but it would have been interesting to see what they’d do when they found a woman in the cell.
Painkillers eased my migraine, and caffeine pills kept me awake. Sleep was the surest thing to speed a metamorphosis, and I couldn’t risk falling asleep and waking up forever Widowed. Even so, my legs felt shorter while my torso lengthened, fitting me closer to a woman’s proportions. My once scruffy appearance softened to a more boyish look, stealing my edge from me.
My phone played a snippet of the William Tell overture, alerting me to a missed message. Spider had called ten minutes ago. “Flea, it’s Spider.” A mellifluous, contralto voice. “In trouble again? Meet me in front of the Catherine Palace, five after ten.”
I checked my watch, now loose around my thinner wrist: nine a.m. I hailed a cab, and headed for the palace. It was no surprise that Spider chose the Catherine Palace for our rendezvous. The palace was famous for its magnificent suites, the Golden Enfilade, especially the Amber Room, recently recreated meticulously from existing records and photographs. I sat on the front steps waiting for Spider, smiling at a few passing tourists, but my mind was elsewhen: the first time I met Spider at the Battle of Agincourt, then our fleeting encounters across Europe throughout the Renaissance, culminating that magical evening at the opera in seventeenth century Venice. Alas, the last time we met, in eighteenth century Edo, it had been on platonic terms. I wondered what she looked like now.
At the appointed time, a dark-skinned, statuesque beauty in a white dress and summer hat sauntered down the path towards me. She had a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, and her every movement was laced with grace. “Hello, Flea.”
It must be Spider…or was it? How could I be sure she was Spider? Could Mantis have intercepted my message and changed her shape to trick me? Maybe it was the fever making me paranoid, but I had to confirm her identity.
I greeted her in Italian, one of dozens of languages I picked up over the centuries. “You’re as radiant as that night at the opera. Remember The Return of Ulysses at the Teatro San Cassiano? That sensuous kiss we shared during intermission?”
Spider crossed her arms. “I’m appalled you don’t remember, Flea. It was a private performance of Orfeo without an intermission, and a slap, not a kiss.”
“There were plenty of kisses much later.” I managed a weak smile. “So it is you, Spider.” I descended the steps, took her right hand and kissed it, catching the scent of lily upon her skin. She wore three silver rings on each hand, set with an individual amber gem.
A wave of shudders overtook me when I touched her. My once light skin darkened a shade, and my chest ached as my ribcage constricted. Did my touch shift my shape closer to hers?
“Just like you, Flea,” Spider said, switching to English. “Always trying to be a gentleman and failing miserably.”
“I’m hoping you could keep me a gentleman.”
“I’ll try. Shall we?” Spider gestured at the doors.
“I thought you’d never ask.” Arm in arm, we entered the Catherine Palace. At the Grand Staircase, a museum guide asked us to don slippers to avoid scuffing the floors. My dress shoes came off with disturbing ease. My feet had shrunk a size.
Spider surprised me, leading me to the right, away from the Amber Room. Instead, we passed through the Knight’s Dining Room and entered a hall of golden resplendence.
Great windows framed by gold let sunlight into the hall, and in-between were mirrors reflecting the sunlight many-fold to swathe the room with brilliance. On the ceiling was a grand mural, a trompe l’oeil that gave the illusion of colonnades and blue sky above. Beneath our feet, the smooth, almost slippery floor was inlaid with crisscross patterns of dark and light oak.
“The Great Hall, also called the Light Gallery. Such celebrations we had here!” Spider reminisced. In this light she seemed a goddess of burnished gold come to life. “Magnificent.”
I drank in the majesty of it all. “A man caught in amber might see the world in this slant of light.”
Spider lowered her voice. “Show me your rash.”
I rolled up my left sleeve, showing her the purplish spots. They had already spread to my upper body. “Is it bad, Doc?”
“Petechial eruptions under the skin,” Spider said.
“Remind me what that means? It’s been a while since I graduated from medical school,” I said. 1878, to be exact.
“Perfectly round, purplish-red, pinpoint spots. Nothing you can’t live through,” Spider said. She touched my forehead. “Fever. I’ve never seen you looking more delicate, Flea. You tend to go for the tough look. I guess the feminine characteristics are catching.”
I eased away from her touch. “I can’t accept that. How do I reverse it?” I asked.
“Best you can do is slow its progress.” Spider tugged on the chain around my neck until the amber showed. “First, this must go.” She exchanged my necklace for a new pendant of amber from her purse, one without an insects caught within. “Amber’s a natural reservoir for metamorphic energies. Pieces without inclusions are perfect matrices to drain off excess Lightning.”
As soon as I touched the new amber, my fingertips became numb, but my headache subsided a little. The amber fluoresced faintly blue under the golden sunlight streaming through the windows. “Do I need to imprint it?” I asked. “Earlier, I couldn’t crystallize my persona.”
“I’m not surprised. The Widowing has already changed you beyond what’s possible with a classic moult,” Spider said. She tucked the pendant back under my shirt and patted it through the cotton. “Your mental self-image is at odds with your changing body. You need to leech away the tainted power. Since you’re merely letting the amber siphon power out, skin contact should suffice. The siphoning will only buy you some time, but won’t halt the Widowing. It’s like drinking water to dilute a poison, but it’s no antidote.”
“Thanks.” I stroked my chin. How I missed the roughness of my beard! “Could Mantis have done this to me intentionally?”
“Mantis?” Spider paused. “Highly improbable. The cause of your Widowing is almost certainly the amber you used. The insect within must have been infected with ancient bacteria.”
“Bacteria.” This was news to me. “What do you mean?”
“Modern science has allowed us greater insight into Elect physiology,” Spider said. “I have been studying the causes of Widowing in Elect men for decades, and we’re much closer to understanding part of the mechanisms behind our metamorphoses.”
“You’re saying science actually explains what we do?” I furrowed my brow. “Isn’t it just magic?”
“In a way, magic is mostly undiscovered science. Haven’t the centuries shown us that?” Spider said.
“Ah. Clarke’s Third Law.” Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In the past, many Elect hoarded scientific knowledge from one part of the world and passed it off as sorcery in another.
“Right.” We paused at the eastern windows, where Spider drew my attention to the butterflies flittering from bloom to bloom in the park. “Insects generate metamorphic energy naturally, using it to moult between instars, changing from larva to pupa to adult. When an insect dies, its death will leave a fleeting psychic imprint on its corpse. Left to decay, that energy will dissipate.”
I pressed my hand against the glass. “But it becomes Lightning when caught in amber?”
“Right. Millions of years ago, resin from ancient trees caught and killed prehistoric insects, but it also preserved the insect’s trace metamorphic energy. The residual power is distilled and magnified by the fossilization of amber, making Lightning.” Spider gestured at the Light Gallery around us. “See how the mirrors boost illumination in this room? Something similar happens inside the amber during those million years.”
I caught my reflection in one of the mirrors. My blue eyes had grown hazel like Spider’s. “So how does that explain the Widowing?”
“If Lightning can be magnified in amber, then so can other kinds of energy,” Spider said. She took a handkerchief from her handbag and touched the sweat from my forehead. “Come. I want to see the Amber Room.”
“I think touching makes it worse. My body seems to be mimicking you.” I showed her my darkened hands. My index fingers had grown longer, like hers.
“Ah. The mirroring effect. I’ll keep my distance.” Spider drew her hand back and took a step away.
“Thank you.” I followed her back through the door we came in. “You’re saying there’s a tainted power inside the amber.”
“Exactly. Have you heard of the Wolbachia bacterium?”
I shook my head.
“It infects insects and other invertebrates like spiders and mites, and is in the same family as the microorganisms that cause typhus and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.”
I was beginning to understand. “The same symptoms I have.”
Spider nodded. “Curiously, the bacterium changes the reproductive mechanisms of its host. Wolbachia has been known to selectively kill off males, changing males into sexually functioning females, even inducing parthenogenesis: eggs developing into females without fertilization.”
“Sex change and immaculate conception? I had no idea insects could do that. Why?” I asked.
“To ensure its own survival. Wolbachia travels in their hosts’ eggs, infecting new offspring. But if the microbe ends up in a male, sperm cannot transmit the parasites to the host’s children, unless….”
“Unless it’s able to change the male host into a female.” I produced the two burnt-out gems and held them to the light in the Grand Staircase. “So these microbes tainted the Lightning?”
Spider took the ambers from me and examined them. “The organism infected invertebrates as long ago as 100 million years, and insects, 50 million years. Most of our amber falls well within that timeframe. Over the centuries, I’ve collected dozens of ambers from Widowed Elect. Once the technology became available, I extracted DNA from them. The ones they used before the Widowing were clean of Wolbachia, while the ones that triggered the sex change were infected.”
We continued through the north wing towards the Amber Room. “So we’ve been playing a game of Russian roulette aeons in the making? Couldn’t I just cure it with Lightning, like any other illness? That’s how I survived the Black Plague.”
“That’s the worst thing you can do for the Widowing. Others before you have tried and failed. The Lightning in your typical piece of amber won’t be enough to undo the sex change.”
I ground my teeth. “There must be some way.”
Spider led me through the next door into the Amber Room. My muscle pains subsided immediately when I crossed the threshold. If the Light Gallery had been golden sunrise caught in a glass mirage, then the Amber Room was crystal dusk shattered and re-imagined as mosaic. Gilded cherubs smiled coyly from above, as though they knew the current panels were replicas. The originals had been taken from the Catherine Palace in 1941 and sent to Koenigsberg on Hitler’s orders, as the dictator had been ordered by his doctors to seek the curative powers of amber. But when the Russians searched Koenigsberg Castle in 1945, the panels were nowhere to be found.
“A valiant copy, but it does not compare to the real thing,” I commented. “The original is always best.”
“I don’t know,” Spider said. “Much of the Catherine Palace we see today is restoration. World War Two destroyed much of it, but artisans were able to recreate, if not improve upon, the original design.”
I examined the countless pieces of amber precisely fitted into the walls. The thirteen shades of amber ran the gamut from whiskey-yellow to blood-red, but when I brushed my index finger against one, the orange stone flickered electric blue. “You said typical amber. What aren’t you telling me, Spider?”
Spider sighed. “There might be a way to fight the Widowing, but it’s not mine to offer.”
The feeling of dread spread from my stomach like a swarm of locusts. “So that’s why you wouldn’t tell me.”
“I know of your feud. Don’t get your hopes up, Flea. The piece of amber in Mantis’s possession is unique and its power boundless, yet no one has yet conquered it. You will more likely die than master its power. Even I fear it.”
“Sounds intriguing,” I said. “What is it?”
Spider shook her head. “Talk to Mantis. Don’t you think it’s time to put aside your quarrel with her, Flea?”
“There’s too much bad blood between us. Centuries worth.”
“She’s changed,” Spider said. “How about negotiating a temporary truce? You want something she has. Is there anything you could offer her?”
I let my gaze drift over the contents of the amber-paneled room around us, thinking. I knew Mantis’s fatal flaws: greed and envy. There was something I stole years ago that might tempt her. Slowly, I nodded. “I think there is.”
We exited the Amber Room together, but as soon as we left the vicinity of the amber panels, sharp pains assailed me and my world spun. I tried to steady myself against Spider, but I had little traction in these slippers. I slipped on the smooth wooden floor and hit my head hard. My world went black.
I dreamt of ancient and colossal trees, the scent of pine and fissures in the bark deep and full of glistening sap. I floated between the living towers, their images caught in swirling hexagonal crystals in my field of vision. A nymph’s gnarled wood-grained face grew on the trunk of the tree ahead. I pulled a steep turn to fly away, but other dryads showed their faces and laughed. There was nowhere to run. Something invisible caught me and held me in place. A web?
“Felix,” called a woman’s sweet voice. There it was again, the fragrance of lilies. “Flea. It’s Spider. Can you hear me?” She wasn’t a part of the dream. I mumbled and pulled the covers over my eyes.
“Wake up, Little John, before you become a Jane.”
Groaning, I pulled off the covers off my face. I was in a soft bed. Spider hovered over me, taking a piece of blue amber from my forehead and daubing the sweat off my brow. I felt sore all over. “No one has called me that in years,” I said. My voice was tenor, no longer baritone.
“How are you feeling?” Spider asked, caressing my hand. I drew it back sharply, aware how much slimmer my fingers had become.
“Like I’ve been flayed, trepanned and leeched. Again.” The suite was decorated in the turn-of-the-century style — the twentieth century, not the twenty-first — with anachronistic touches clashing with the antiques, like the shaded lamps and the hotel phone. The light from outside told me it was still day. “How long have I been out?”
“Six hours. The high concentration of stones in the Amber Room likely dampened your Widowing even without physical contact. When you left the curative field, the Widowing hit you twice as hard,” Spider conjectured. “After you fell, the museum personnel wanted to take you to the hospital, but I greased a few palms to have you brought back to my suite. I’ve gone through five good pieces of amber slowing your Widowing.”
“Hey, they’re worth more blue,” I joked.
“They won’t stay blue long,” Spider said. She dropped the blue amber into her purse. “It’s easier to make popcorn from kernels than the other way around. The distilled Lightning inside the amber is diamond-like, structured perfectly. By comparison, Lightning already in the body is coal, and saturates amber fast. Blueness means the stone has reached its absorption limit, but it will return to its natural colour.”
“So much for making profit out of my predicament.” I ran checked my body for further changes that might have infected me during sleep. My athletic body hadn’t lost its muscularity or definition, but my chest hair had thinned to nothingness. My pecs became fuller, rounder. My hips were wider and my arms shorter, but at least the rash on my arms was fading. I sat up and examined my reflection in the mirror opposite the bed. The colour black had won the war against my hair’s original chestnut shade. While my face still bore elements of my original design, the brow was less pronounced and my features finer, almost androgynous. I didn’t want to think about what was changing down there. “How long do I have?”
Spider tossed me the amber. “You’re not dying, Flea. Stop talking like you are.”
“But I am.” I grabbed my shirt off a bedside chair.
“I fail to see how it’s different from any of your other metamorphoses,” Spider said. She helped me with the buttons on my shirt. “You’ve taken different sizes, changed the colour of your skin, and lived the seven ages of Man. You experimented with our ability to transform, even reveled in the changes. Why would a new sex frighten you so?”
Good question. “It’s a matter of control. When I first learned I was Elect, I designed the new life I would have, the body I would wear. But this Widowing robs me of that choice. My crusade’s always been against tyranny, and this is no different than what Mantis did for centuries. I won’t let some parasitic microbe from a million years ago control me!”
“The Widowing is a far different beast than the Sheriff of Nottingham, Little John. Disease does not discriminate,” Spider said. “We all have aspects of the masculine and feminine, the animus and the anima. The Widowing is only bringing to the fore a part of you that has always been there.”
I shook my head. “Being in touch with my feminine side isn’t the same as being forced into a sex change. You can’t know how I feel.” Or could she? “Were you ever…?”
She handed me an old-fashioned thermometer. “Does it matter?” she said, her face inscrutable.
I stuck the thermometer under my tongue and thought about her question. It shouldn’t. She was older than any Elect, and we all acknowledged her as the paradigm of a woman. Would any of that change, if she had in fact been a Widow?
When she indicated that the time was up, I gave her the thermometer back. “I’m just curious.”
Spider smirked. “Every woman has her secrets.” She read the mercury. “Your fever’s subsiding, as are your other symptoms. The Widowing has entered its second stage. Your body has already started to moult its male parts and will continue until you are completely biologically female.”
“Not if I can help it.” I refused to let the disease conquer me, even if it meant I would have to grovel at Mantis’s feet. “Very well. A man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do,” I said, aware of the irony of my statement. “Call Mantis. Give her time to set up another trap.”
“Stop being so paranoid,” Spider said.
“Force of habit.” I pulled on my pants under the covers, but they fitted too loose. “I hide, he seeks. I flee, he chases. It’s been our way for centuries.”
“The old he. Not the new she.” Spider opened a musical jewelry box – playing the aria Possente spirito from Monteverdi’s Orfeo – and plucked out an amber ring for me. I slipped it on my right ring finger with the gemstone facing in. If I needed its soothing touch, I could form a fist and press the amber to my palm. “Besides, you’re forgetting one thing. This time, I’ll be there to protect you.” Spider grinned.
Spider and I arrived early at the Caviar Bar and Restaurant on the Mezzanine Level. Marble and mirrors were the theme of the Caviar Bar décor. We took a table in a quiet corner and sampled luxury vodkas and caviars while waiting for Mantis. A few conference attendees came into the restaurant and greeted Spider, but left us in peace.
A thirtyish-looking woman with short auburn hair and fierce green eyes entered the restaurant. She wore red amber earrings and a custom-tailored woman’s suit, a black leather portfolio under her arm. You wouldn’t call her striking or sensuous, but she had the presence of a lioness. It was Mantis all right, or in her present incarnation, Morgan Grandin, president of the Adamantis Mining Corporation.
The maitre-d’hotel escorted Mantis to our table and held the seat for her, but she waved him away. “Good evening, Spider. Flea,” said Mantis in English. She tossed a British newspaper on the table. The headline read, LOST FABERGÉ RESURFACES, BRITISH MUSEUM BAFFLED. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”
“You know it was me,” I replied icily. “You steal something from the people, I liberate it and give it back.”
Mantis appraised me. “The Widowing is very becoming of you. Why, with a little blush and some fashion tips, you’ll be racking up wolf-whistles in no time.”
I rolled my eyes. “Payback?”
Mantis smiled. “I seem to recall someone taunting me the same way when I Widowed.”
“Guilty, as charged,” I said. “But you deserved it.”
Spider shook her head. “Play nice, children.”
“I was merely remarking on Flea’s inhibitions,” Mantis said. She picked up a delicate silver spoon and polished it. “He’s always had gender issues.”
“That’s not true,” I said, drumming my fingers on the table.
“You say that, but I only have to cite one thing to prove otherwise. Marian.”
I shook my head. “That’s different. You started the whole Marian fiasco as a personal attack against me.”
“Now I’m curious. What Marian fiasco?” asked Spider.
Mantis placed a napkin in her lap. “He’s mad that I invented Maid Marian in the late sixteenth century.”
“There never was a real Marian,” I said. “The original Merry Men were just that. Men.” That wasn’t what we were really called, but the name stuck. “Mantis perverted the Robin Hood legend just to spite me.”
“I thought the story became more romantic with my revisions,” Mantis said. “The King of Thieves must have his Queen. I did more to keep the legend alive than you ever did, Flea, but you obsess on Marian and not the liberties I took with other parts of the legend, like the time period or the location. It’s almost as if you’re jealous of a fictional character.”
“I am not!” I said, but Spider and Mantis only exchanged glances, as though they knew something I didn’t. “Look. I’m here because Spider said you have something that might cure me.”
“Did she now?” Mantis frowned at Spider.
Spider dismissed Mantis’s accusing stare with a wave. “Trust me, Mantis, I wouldn’t have told Flea if he wasn’t the ideal candidate. He’s a perfect test subject.”
Mantis put her elbows on the table and folded her hands together as though in prayer. I tensed. That was her tell when she held a good hand. Mantis might really have something that could cure the Widowing! But if so, why hadn’t she used it to change herself back into a man?
“Enough,” I said. “What’s so special about this mysterious amber of yours?”
“That information will cost you,” Mantis said. “But what could you possibly have that I might want?”
“Oh, you might be surprised. Something extraordinary that you’ve lusted after for a long time,” I said, leaving her imagination to fill in the blanks.
“Tell him, or I will,” Spider said. “You owe it to Mayfly and Hawkmoth.”
Now Spider made me even more curious. “Spill it, Mantis. Trust me, I will make it worth your while,” I said.
“You damn well better.” Mantis unlaced her fingers. “My mines are under explicit instructions to deliver the best amber inclusions to our headquarters in Gdansk. The nominal reason is that an insect trapped in the amber might be an undiscovered species, but in reality I keep the best samples for sale to the Elect. Metamorphic amber is, for all practical purposes, a non-renewable resource. Six months ago, a mine in Kaliningrad discovered an extraordinary piece of amber with an unknown specimen and sent it to me. As soon as I laid my eyes on it, I knew it was no ordinary amber. A gem the size of a hen’s egg, it was the most perfect piece of amber I had ever seen. Although amber is normally warm to the touch, being a poor conductor of heat, this gem was hot.”
“Could it be the Lightning inside?” I asked.
Mantis shrugged. “Could be. Even my assistants who weren’t Elect could feel its heat. I could sense that there was an immense store of Lightning in the amber, but it felt wrong. The inclusion was a curled tadpole-like worm roughly eight centimeters long, but I did not recognize the species. Neither did Mayfly, a young Elect biologist training under my tutelage.”
“No one told him the name’s cursed?” Every Elect took the name of a critter, often embodying the traits of our namesake or changed to fit. No one named Mayfly ever lived past a year.
Mantis lowered her head. “You’ve anticipated his tragic end. When Mayfly tried to imprint the amber, he suddenly burst into flames. Although the sprinklers eventually doused the fire, it was too late to save him. All that remained of Mayfly was wet ash. The amber egg remained intact.”
I winced. “Spontaneous human combustion? Ouch.”
A nod. “I could scarcely believe it myself. Hawkmoth, a senior scientist on my staff, tried as well. She managed to use the fire amber to reverse the Widowing for a few seconds, before being consumed by flames.”
She still used people like food-tasters. I rose and grabbed Mantis by the collar across the table, sending a vodka glass tumbling. It broke against the tiled floor. “Do you ever face the risk yourself?”
I felt the tines of a fork pressed against my stomach. Her reflexes hadn’t dulled any. “Hawkmoth volunteered,” Mantis insisted.
Being so close to her sent a shiver of change through my body. My lips trembled and curled to match her sneer, while my chest strained the buttons on my shirt.
“Put her down, Flea. People are staring,” Spider said. “She didn’t have to tell you any of this.”
I supposed she didn’t. She could have told me that the fire amber was safe even if it wasn’t. But was she being truthful only because Spider was mediating? I took a long, deep breath and let go of Mantis, and glared around the room. The other restaurant patrons tore their gazes away and pretended they hadn’t seen anything at all.
I sat back down. “Go on.”
Mantis straightened her shirt. “The fire amber was too dangerous to use and too powerful to leave a riddle. I knew I was out of my league, so I asked for Spider’s help.” A waiter came by to sweep away the glass fragments while another brought a replacement.
“I was intrigued,” Spider said. She stole a spoonful of caviar from Mantis. “I flew to Gdansk to head up research on this fascinating fire amber. I exposed the gem to various tests. It floats in salt water like amber would, and the surface does not react with alcohol to become tacky, as it would if it was copal. However, when exposed to ultraviolet light, it doesn’t glow green or blue, but red.”
“That doesn’t sound like amber. You sure it wasn’t red kryptonite?” I joked. Spider smiled, but Mantis didn’t. On a more serious note, something had been bothering me. “Amber can’t survive heat over 300 degrees Celsius, and by your description of their immolation, I’d expect a blaze as hot as 1,200 degrees, at least. How could it survive the fire?”
“Strange, isn’t it?” Spider said. “The fire amber is flame-resistant, but if you chip away a piece and expose it to fire, it will soften, blacken, and burn with amber’s characteristic incense-like scent. I concluded that it was the inclusion that made the fire amber unique.”
“What have you discovered about the worm?” I asked.
Spider exchanged glances with Mantis. “It would be best if you saw the fire amber for yourself. Mantis?”
Mantis ran a finger idly around the rim of her vodka glass. “Not until I know what you offer.”
Spider turned to me. “She’s kept her end of the deal.”
She was right. The fire amber could indeed be my salvation, if I could master it. “Then I offer you the Amber Room, Mantis.”
Mantis laughed. “You plan to rob the Catherine Palace?”
An interesting thought, but I pushed it aside before I could be distracted by the intricacies of such a heist. “The original panels, all twenty-seven crates of them. All except the Touch and Smell panel that got away.” That one, stolen by a German soldier before my heist, was back in Saint Petersburg.
The expression of surprise on Mantis’s face was well worth the sixty-odd years wait, while the look of understanding and admiration on Spider’s was a pleasant bonus. “Bastard. I’ve been searching for the Amber Room for decades, and all along you had it,” Mantis said. “How?”
“We all have our trade secrets,” I said, leaning back in my chair. “Let’s just say that it took a lot of ingenuity, planning, and luck to steal six tons worth of amber from the Germans.”
“I’d have thought you sold them piecemeal,” Mantis said.
“Never. The Room is an exquisite masterpiece of amber art with much history,” I said. “So much blood and sweat went into its construction I couldn’t simply smash it up for the amber.”
Mantis narrowed her eyes. “Even if you still have them, the amber’s surely damaged over the years.”
“I’m scandalized that you think I’d leave them to degrade. I restored the damaged panels and spared no expense to protect them from discolouration. A controlled microclimate keeps them safe from oxygen and water vapour. Do we have a deal?”
Mantis spread a smidgen of caviar on a blini and cut a piece from it slowly, mulling over my offer. She savoured the caviar and daubed her lips. “I want it.”
“Half now. The rest after I try this amber of yours.”
“And if you don’t survive?” Mantis asked.
“It’s in your best interest to see that I do,” I said.
“Very well.” She opened her portfolio and took out a business card. “Have it sent to my castle in Poland. That’s where we’re heading as well, if you intend to see the fire amber.”
“I’ll call to arrange it,” I said.
Mantis lifted a tumbler of vodka. “To truce.”
Spider and I lifted our own glasses. “Na zdorovje!”
I downed my vodka. I wonder who was getting the better deal: Mantis, with the Amber Room, or me, with a potential cure for this disease. On the other hand, if the cure was as dangerous as they intimated, perhaps Mantis was hoping to be rid of me once and for all.
“Let’s go, then,” I said. I was eager to know if this amber could indeed cure me.
“Soon.” Mantis spread more caviar on her blini. “I never let good Sevruga go to waste.”
After I phoned Thicks in London to arrange the amber delivery, Mantis, Spider and I boarded my jet for Gdansk. I would need new forged documents soon. Any more changes to my face and I wouldn’t be able to use my current passport.
Mantis sat across from Spider and me, sipping a Grasshopper martini. Likely she designed her body for a high tolerance of alcohol as I did, a standard body-trick among the Elect. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to try loosening her tongue with a cocktail or two. “So, Mantis. If I figure out how to use this thing, would you go back to being a man?”
“Believe it or not, Flea, I’ve embraced my new self,” Mantis said. “I consider it a privilege to have experienced life as both men and women. There are unexpected advantages that a woman enjoys.” She touched her left earring, which had a mite trapped inside, and changed. Her eyes became as blue as the sky, her cheekbones more angular and her hair white gold.
“Such flagrant waste of Lightning,” Spider said, and I agreed. She stood. “Excuse me for a moment, darlings. I must call the university.” She took a seat in the rear of the plane to use the satellite phone, leaving me alone with Mantis.
Mantis shrugged. “Ignore her. As men we used ambers reluctantly, fearing that the curse of Widowing might make us less than we were. Women have no such cares. We may moult as the mood strikes us, goddesses of a thousand shapes.” Her eyes flickered brown, then violet, then green again. “When such power is mine, why would I have any desire to revisit the past?”
“Bollocks!” I said. “You were never able to resist fame. At heart you’re still Mordred. Nottingham. Machiavelli. Moriarty! When you were a man, you let nothing stand in your way. What legends have you inspired lately, madame?”
“Still envious of my legacy, Flea? How well have you fared? People only remember you as a sidekick: Little John. Sancho Panza. Friday. Whenever you try to be a hero, you always fail miserably. Face it: when your balls shrivel up and fall off, you’ll lose your last chance to prove yourself a man’s man.” She stabbed an olive and popped it into her mouth.
I shrugged at the notion. “I’ve little use for personal glory. If I helped any man to better himself and in turn the world, then let him be remembered, not me.”
“But Flea, you’re so convinced that masculinity and fraternity equal strength that you’ve subconsciously dismissed the female sex as weaker. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Think of insects in nature: queens among bees, termites and ants. Female mantises and black widows sometimes bite off the heads of the males after mating. Who’s the stronger sex?”
“Nice try, but I’m not convinced.” I leaned forward and stared into her eyes. “Look at the alias you chose. Why take an ambiguous name like Morgan and not something distinctly feminine? You’re still looking for a way to change back. That’s why you’re desperate to unlock the fire amber’s power.”
Mantis said nothing. She shifted back to her Morgan shape and nursed her Grasshopper martini the rest of the flight.
The sun was setting when we landed at Lech Walesa Airport, roughly two hours after take-off. Gdansk on the Baltic Sea had long been a center for amber craftsmanship. In fact, the Amber Room was commissioned by the King of Prussia and first designed in this city. It was no surprise that Mantis had chosen this area of Poland to set up her amber industry headquarters.
Prorok Castle, Mantis’s current residence, was some forty kilometers southeast of Gdansk; we would take Mantis’s helicopter from the airport to save travel time. At the helipad, Mantis’s pilot greeted us. I scowled when I recognized his voice: Nicodem. He was tall and stringy with curly brown hair, a handlebar moustache, and eyes like pits of darkness. He must have flown to Poland from London after our encounter. Nicodem never did see my face, and I doubted he recognized me in my current shape, though Mantis was sure to tell him who I was.
“Nicodem Walczak, my Chief of Security,” shouted Mantis over the noise of the propellers.
I knew it would be risky, this visit to Mantis’s castle. I had entertained the notion of stealing the fire amber, but with Nicodem here, the chances of theft had just halved and the risk of death doubled. Still, there was no turning back.
We arrived shortly at Prorok and landed inside the castle courtyard. Typical of Mantis, she had renamed the place for the Polish word for prophet, a play on the meaning of the word mantis in Latin. The little-known castle, built in the fifteenth century by Teutonic knights, had been converted into her private residence. If I wanted a fortress of my own, I could: like most of the Elect, I had made careful, long-term investments that had made me ridiculously rich. Mantis led us into her castle, and I watched for any potential escape routes.
“Nicodem, show our guests to their rooms,” Mantis said.
Nicodem bowed and picked up our luggage. “This way, ladies.” Ladies? Had the sum of my body’s changes crossed the great gender divide? I needed a mirror, bad.
“I’ll take that myself, kid,” I said, taking my suitcase from him. Spider and I followed Nicodem up the stairs to the third floor. He showed us our adjacent rooms and placed Spider’s luggage in her room. “If you need anything, just dial zero,” said Nicodem, and departed.
“I have gifts for you, Flea.” Spider opened her handbag and took out her music box and a worn paperback. It was a copy of Orlando by Virginia Woolf. She pressed them into my hands. “These ambers should give you some comfort in the meantime.”
“Thank you. And the book?”
“It’s about an Elizabethan lord, born a man but transformed mysteriously into a woman,” Spider said. “He embraced his new sex quite matter-of-factly and lived for centuries. A fitting tale, don’t you think?”
I flipped through the pages. “Spider, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but if the fire amber works, the point’s moot.”
“Read it,” Spider insisted.
I shrugged. “I suppose there’s no harm. See you soon.” I took the gifts into my room and shut the door. The tight, once-medieval guest room had been modernized for comfort, as though small elements of all centuries I had lived through had been incorporated into its decor. The window, barely large enough to climb through, overlooked the inner courtyard. I tossed my suitcase on the bed. It would be difficult to escape Prorok, given what I’d seen of the castle and the region. I needed a quick way to leave, but I would have to get a message to Thicks.
I popped a scanner out of a secret compartment in my suitcase and started sweeping the room for bugs. There were two: one in the potted plant by the window and one in the base of the porcelain figurine of Leda and the Swan on the table.
Looking out the window and toying with the potted plant, I made a call to Thickett. “Thicks. Password Lancelot.”
“You’ve gone falsetto! Having fun storming the castle?”
“Loads,” I said. “You should see my room. Great view of the courtyard, though I would have preferred one nearer the corners instead of dead center. As it is, the sun will wake me too early. When can I expect the first shipment?”
“Within the hour. Best I could do on such short notice.”
“You always exceed my expectations, Thicks. Think you can top the Milan job?” I hoped he caught the reference. “There’s an extra set of wheels in it for you if you do. Send half as soon as you can, but not the rest until I call again.”
A pause. “The Milan job, eh? Tough act to follow, but I’ll give it a shot. Godspeed.”
Forty minutes later, a crate of amber panels arrived by helicopter, airlifted to Prorok. I hurried downstairs to greet the chopper, but Spider, Mantis, and Nicodem beat me to it.
“You promised me half the panels,” Mantis said.
“More will come. It takes time to move sixteen tons of amber safely,” I reminded her. “This is the fastest I could arrange for a shipment to arrive from the nearest location. Is it enough collateral to buy me a peek at the fire amber?”
“Let’s have a look.” Mantis snapped her fingers and instructed her guards to move the crate to the West Wing. While her men struggled with the flatbed, we preceded them to the New Amber Room on the ground floor.
The room where Mantis intended to mount the panels was much larger than I expected. One side was a set of great windows designed to catch the morning sunlight. The original Amber Room panels were made for a small palace room in Berlin, and when they were transplanted to the larger room in the Catherine Palace in 1755, amber wallpaper, mirrors, and gilded frames were added to give the illusion of more amber than was actually present. It looked like Mantis imagined this bare room to exceed even the Amber Room’s current incarnation in Russia.
“I’ve been saving this room for a day when I would find the Amber Room,” Mantis said. “Did you know that I spent an instar as an artisan on the original panels? I know my own work, so these better be genuine, Flea.”
“They are,” I assured her.
Spider walked the perimeter of the room, trailing her hand along the wall. “How will you fill the gaps? Same tricks as the Catherine Palace?”
Laughter. “I am the queen of amber,” Mantis reminded Spider. “I will encrust this room with my personal grand designs made from the ambers of the world, a merging of new and old.”
Setting the crate down gently, Mantis’s guards pried the lid open and eased the first panel out of the box. A dark Prussian eagle was set into the amber mosaic.
Mantis ran her fingers along the raised circle of amber that framed the symbol of Prussia. “It is genuine. You are a man of your word, Flea.”
“That’s the hope,” I said.
“Nicodem, inspect the panels as they come in. Let me know if any are damaged or missing,” Mantis said.
Mantis motioned for us to follow, and took us to the end of the hall where a gleaming steel sliding door was set incongruously into the castle wall. Mantis touched an earring with a finger on her left hand, then pressed her right hand to the palm scanner. Tricky, that. Given that she could shapeshift at will, she didn’t need to use her natural palm-print as the key to the door. She only needed to change her palm to the proper shape when she needed to unlock the lab. It made breaking and entering this room all the more difficult.
The lab door slid open. “After you,” she said.
After seeing the true strength of her security system, I was now positive that last night’s Fabergé caper had been a trap. Mantis might have changed, but at the core of it, the bitch was still a cunning bastard.
We entered a pristine suite of labs installed with the latest medical and chemical equipment. The door slid shut behind us. Mantis went to a wall and unlocked a safe with another palm-print, donned a pair of gloves and took a piece of amber the shape and size of a chicken egg from the cushion within. With small, cautious steps, she carried the fire amber to a lab table, placed it on a stainless steel stand, and shone white light on the jewel.
The golden amber was rough and vaguely egg-shaped. I had never seen a piece of amber so free of air bubbles. The most interesting thing about it, though, was the inclusion: a semi-transparent worm with a large head and a long tail.
“May I touch it?” I asked.
Mantis nodded. “Sense the power within, but don’t try to imprint it. Mayfly and Hawkmoth tried and failed.”
“I’ll be careful.” I touched the fire amber with a finger. As Mantis claimed, the amber was hot, brimming with a primordial power. It was obvious why Mantis wanted to master this gem.
Spider tapped a few keys on a nearby computer and projected a few enlarged images onto a white screen. The inclusion was a curled tadpole-like worm roughly eight centimeters long, but I did not recognize the species. I could make out two black dots in the head, and even rudimentary organs.
“It isn’t an insect or a worm,” Spider said. “It’s not in the same phylum as invertebrates at all. See the tail? No segmentation. The creature has a nervous system, a notochord, which makes it a chordate like mammals, fish, and birds. The closest fauna it resembles is the larval form of a tunicate.”
My zoology wasn’t that good. “What’s a tunicate?”
“Tunicates, or tunicata, are more commonly called sea squirts,” answered Spider. “They’re jellyfish-like but sessile filter feeders like coral. Most tunicates are hermaphroditic, carrying both egg and sperm. However, the inclusion doesn’t resemble any modern tunicata. For one thing, it has no gills, which means it might not be adapted for aquatic life.”
Strange that a tadpole-like larva could even exist outside water. How could this specimen even get caught in tree sap? I adjusted the light and held a magnifying glass over the amber for a better look. “Could you extract DNA from it to find out what it is?” I asked.
Spider shook her head. “In my experiments to find the cause of the Widowing, I discovered that the Lightning would be lost if the structure of the amber is compromised. There’s no way to get a needle in there and keep the power intact. But as I said, I have a hypothesis about its true nature.”
“Don’t tell me just yet. I’d like to take a stab at it, if you don’t mind.” I thought about what I knew about the creature inside the fire amber. It wasn’t a worm but a non-aquatic chordate in larval form. What would it metamorphose into? What would explain the amber exuding heat, and why would Mayfly and Hawkmoth be burnt to ash? I recalled my earlier conversation with Spider about science and magic.
Could the life-form within be a creature of myth?
“Blimey. It’s a bloody phoenix in there, isn’t it?” I said, excited by the possibility.
Spider smiled. “It was the only logical conclusion.”
Mantis peered at the critter inside the amber. “It looks nothing like a phoenix. All I see’s a worm.”
“In the legends, the phoenix lived for five hundred years, give or take a few centuries depending on the source,” I said, putting the magnifying glass aside. “When it was ready to die, it would build a pyre and immolate itself. It was said that a worm would crawl out of the ashes and become the phoenix reborn.”
“There’s truth in every myth,” Spider agreed. She tapped a key and called up a map of the world. “The legend of the phoenix can be found in many cultures around the world. The Russian firebird, the Egyptian benu, the Chinese fenghuang, the Japanese hou-ou. In Central America, the old Mayan sun god Kinich Ahau was portrayed as a phoenix. Even the Malay Garuda is a phoenix.” She pointed to each named region with a laser pointer, then overlaid the slide with a map of the world’s amber. “Phoenix myths and amber deposits match worldwide.”
I thought about the implications. “You think those myths were based on sightings of real phoenixes? But amber is millions of years old. Why would the phoenixes stick around the same place? Migratory routes?”
Spider shook her head. “I think there were more phoenix larvae caught in amber. Those ancient sightings might have been the phoenixes escaping from their eggs. Don’t ask me where they are now, if they still exist.”
I picked up the fire amber. After hundreds of millions of years inside this amber tomb, this creature was still alive? “You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? The phoenix’s supposed to be immortal.”
I put the gem back on the stand. “How on Earth does a sea squirt turn into a phoenix?” I asked.
“Modern science might not be able to explain it, but magic might. Birds have been around since the Jurassic, millions of years older than the first amber deposits. What if the phoenix larva was originally a simple chordate like the tunicate, but somehow learned to evolve into a bird using metamorphic energy?” Spider suggested. “What are we but highly-evolved chordates?”
“Still doesn’t explain why a phoenix larva would get caught in the amber,” I said.
“Could be any number of ways,” Spider said. “Caught in a windstorm and blown into the resin. Part of a phoenix’s lifecycle that we don’t yet understand. Legend also claims that after the new phoenix is born, it gathers the ashes of the old phoenix into an egg of myrrh. What is myrrh but tree resin, just like amber was millennia ago?”
“I couldn’t care less what it is,” Mantis said, her eyes aglitter. “Think of the power! Look at what we can already do with dead insects in amber. This thing’s alive. We have an inexhaustible source of living Lightning, and all we have to do is to figure out how to control it.”
“All I have to do.” If we were right, then this amber was the philosopher’s stone: the ultimate source of metamorphic energy. If our standard insect inclusions were batteries of power, then the fire amber was a pocket fusion reactor. All the more reason to take this time-bomb out of Mantis’s hands. “Why do you think I’ll succeed where others failed, Spider?”
“You’re different from Mayfly and Hawkmoth. For one, you’re more experienced than those neonates. For another, you’re in the middle of the Widowing, itself an ancient and powerful metamorphosis. If you direct the phoenix’s energy against the Widowing, their energies might cancel out, or at least weaken enough for you to seize control.”
“Or I might just die from double the infections.”
“That’s the risk,” admitted Spider. She logged off the computer. “How far are you willing to go, Flea? Is preserving your sex worth your life?”
Spider was right. It could be suicidal. Two people already died. Life was more precious than controlling my own sex. Still, I had a chance, however small, of living through the experience and mastering the phoenix’s power. If I gave up this opportunity now, I had zero chance of beating this Widowing. It was a gamble with long odds, but I had never let that stop me before. Besides, if I didn’t try, Mantis might find someone else who might unlock the phoenix’s secrets, and I couldn’t have that power falling into her hands.
“All my life I have played the outlaw, risking my life so that others might live a better life,” I told them. “I’ve faced death more times than I can remember, suffered through countless tortures and lived. I survived because of my will. I will survive this too. I’m ready.” I reached for the fire amber again.
“Not so fast,” Mantis said, snatching the gem before I could. She stepped back from the table. “I haven’t gotten my Amber Room yet.”
I shook my head. “I can’t wait that long. Sooner or later I would need to sleep again, and I won’t risk the Widowing changing more of me while I’m dead to the world.”
“Then give me your next password, in case you die,” Mantis said. “Then I can be sure your crony will deliver the rest.”
As I expected, Mantis had been listening in on my call. “No way. You’ll find a way to kill me and use the password to get to the amber. Let Spider be the intermediary,” I offered. “She’s always stayed neutral in the disputes of the Elect.”
Mantis caressed the amber egg. “Very well. Tell her.”
I pulled Spider aside and whispered into her ear. I couldn’t resist giving her earlobe a quick nibble while I was at it, changes be damned. “Aguecheek.” Spider chuckled.
Mantis gestured at a hospital bed on the other side of a glass wall, next to an array of medical equipment. “Strip and lie down, so we can monitor your vitals.”
I hesitated. I was reluctant to let anyone see how the Widowing had ravaged my body, least of all myself.
Spider put a hand gently on my shoulder. “It’s all right, Flea. There’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”
I walked over to the bed and took off my shirt. My pecs had grown so full they resembled breasts. Even now, I felt my neck lengthen and slim to match Spider’s. I quickly dropped my pants but left the boxer briefs on. My hips were fuller, stretching the elastic, and my ‘boys’ had jumped up inside my body. I pulled the covers off the bed in one smooth stroke and wrapped it around my waist, cursing in twelve languages as I lay down.
Mantis stood by with the amber egg in one hand, a fire extinguisher in the other. Spider placed four electrodes on my chest, turned on the EKG, and positioned an infra-red camera to conduct a thermo-imaging scan of my body temperature. “Ready?”
I cupped my hands over my stomach. “Let me have it.”
Mantis pressed the fire amber into my hands. Any hotter and the stone would burn me like coal. I closed my eyes. If I was going to survive this, I needed a self-image that was most familiar to me. I invoked my oldest memory: seven feet tall, tree-trunk legs, hairy arms, and the hefty build of a grizzly bear. I would become Little John of Hathersage again.
I folded my hands over the fire amber and primed the jewel with the pattern of my first body. At first, the amber matrix resisted the imprint, but I took my time. Likely the two who died rushed the process. Slowly, the Little John imprint took.
The fiery energy inside the amber pulsed against my psychic imprint. I opened the floodgates and the power poured into me.
My world caught fire.
The moment I tapped into the fire amber, my imprint fractured from the sheer force of the liberated Lightning. The pattern of Little John burned itself into my body haphazardly: my gums bled, while my bones were growing faster than my muscles, tearing them. Worst of all, patches of third-degree burns erupted on my skin. I screamed.
“Incredible,” Mantis said. “Your internal temperature’s reached a hundred degrees Celsius! How are you still alive?”
“Your heartbeat’s erratic, but I can’t keep these on you,” Spider said, ripping the electrodes off my chest. “They’re going to melt. Come on, Flea, you can beat this!”
“Thanks for your vote,” I managed between breaths, “of confidence.” I tasted blood in my mouth. The Lightning from the amber continued to flow, but now it was fighting against the tainted Widowing power. Pulled in two directions, my body didn’t know whether to return to male or complete the change to female. I was the rope in a tug of war between two powers, strained near the breaking point.
“Flea, let go,” Mantis said, trying to pry the amber out of my hands, but I couldn’t will my hands open. Something forced me to grip the fire amber.
Flames flickered out of my pores, burning away hair. I could smell burnt flesh and old pine. My underwear and bedsheets caught on fire. Mantis raised the fire extinguisher and sprayed foam on me, quenching the flames. “Keep it up, Flea. You’re doing a lot better than Mayfly or Hawkmoth.”
“No, it’s worse,” I said, struggling to my feet. Foam slid off my body. The energy was building up inside me. Like trapped steam, the more the pressure built, the more dangerous it got. When Mayfly and Hawkmoth tapped into the amber, they could only hold a sliver of the phoenix energy before it consumed them. “If I don’t control this power, I’ll explode and take this castle with me!”
“Don’t you dare!” Mantis said, tossing the empty fire extinguisher clattering across the floor.
Spider unhooked her necklace, a clear amber, and hung it around my neck. “Does this help?”
The pain eased some, but it was small relief. “We need a lot more amber than this!” I said. I remembered the calming effects of the Amber Room at Catherine Palace. “The amber panels! What if we built a temporary cocoon around me? Will that dampen the shapeshift?”
“It might, if we seal you in,” Spider said.
“But will the panels survive?” Mantis asked.
“This is no time to worry about your treasures!” I shouted. “You’ll lose it all if I die!” Hands stuck together, I stumbled from the smouldering bed, ran for the lab door in my misshapen body and slammed the door switch. The door slid open. Another wave of flickering flame pulsed from my ankles up to my scalp, burning away more of what made me a man.
“Stop!” Mantis screamed, but I ignored her. Bare-naked, I raced down the hall towards the New Amber Room, with Mantis and Spider close on my heels. Every step sent a jolt through my body. When I got there, Nicodem stood in my way. His eyes widened in surprise when he saw my nude, hermaphroditic body. He tried to tackle me, but I sidestepped his attack. Though my hands were stubbornly clasped around the fire amber against my will, I could still swing my arms. I wound up for a two-handed haymaker and slammed Nicodem in the jaw. He reeled and fell to the floor. Damn that felt good!
The New Amber Room was deserted. The panels had been removed from the crate and now lay on the castle floor. I turned to Spider and Mantis, who had caught up with me. “I can’t do this on my own. Please, help me.”
“But the amber!” protested Mantis.
I winced. “There’s much more to come, but you’ll want to be alive when you gloat about it.” I laid down on my back on one of the large tiles. The panel turned blue when I touched it, and the amber against me soothed me. I was no longer sparking flames. “Please, build a triangular cocoon around me.”
Spider started to lift one of the panels, but Mantis stopped her. “We need to do this carefully.” She took her walkie-talkie and instructed for her guards to hurry to the Amber Room. After they arrived with due haste, Mantis told them how to set up the amber panels carefully around me.
“My million-dollar coffin,” I joked.
“This is only a loan, Flea,” Mantis said.
Spider kissed me. “Come back safe, John Little.”
“You might want to evacuate, just in case,” I said.
“And leave you alone with the fire amber? Not a chance.” Mantis rose and took two steps back.
“I’m not going anywhere either,” Spider said.
“Suit yourselves.” The guards sealed the ends of the triangular tube. Inside my Chrysalis, the amber walls crackled and sparked sapphire-blue. The war of powers inside me slowed, but I also sensed something becoming aware of me.
The larva wasn’t just alive. It was sentient.
I knew now why I couldn’t let go of the fire amber. The phoenix had been controlling my hands. What did it want? If I wanted to live, I had to understand what I was up against.
Warily, I touched the mind of the phoenix. Strange images and sounds began assailing my mind.
…soaring through the air, diving steep towards a jungle of giant ferns, chasing feathered dinosaurs gliding over green waters. Strange cries echoed from vale to vale in the morning light, and the earth trembled as great beasts stampeded over stony terrain…
…in darkness, I made flames dance in waves from wingtip to wingtip, drawing moths and flies close enough to snatch with my beak. Elsewhere under the canopy of sweet-scented trees, others like me play the same burning game…
…drenched by a torrential rain, strutting in a circle with others of my kind, ruby and sapphire feathers spread. I chirped a crisp melody while the other phoenixes sang in harmony. When the clouds broke and the sun shone, we summoned the heat within to dry our plumes…
…tired wings brought me to a hollow near the top of a great coniferous tree, the scent of sweet resin in the evening air, I sang a lament and set myself afire, lighting the wood-pyre around me as I burned and changed….
I was seeing its world through its eyes, hearing the ancient past through its avian ears, and lived those moments of its lives. I fought the urge to drown myself in more wonders of that Age. I had never dealt with Lightning controlled by an intelligence before. How could I fight it for dominance?
Maybe these memories of the past were its attempts to imprint its sense of self on me! I fought back, focusing on my Little John memories in hopes of bending the phoenix to my will.
…milking cows and putting them to pasture as a boy of thirteen, already taller than the men in the village…
…my first meeting with Robin atop a log spanning a creek in Barnsdale Forest, neither of us willing to yield the path. The ruffian in muddied green barked a challenge: duel by quarterstaff. Smiling, I swung my oaken rod…
…tied up before the Sheriff of Nottingham, who raised his whip to lash me again and again. A pendant of amber hung from the Sheriff’s neck. He laughed at my pain and taunted me, telling me that I was only bait, and that he would keep me alive to see him skin the other outlaws…
…I held my beloved Robin in my arms, knowing he was at the end of his life and that I could do nothing to save him, not even with the power of the magical amber I ripped from Nottingham’s throat. Robin asked one last thing: to fetch his bow and arrow for one last shot, so that I could bury him where the arrow fell….
The phoenix and I were at an impasse: we both demanded the other to submit, but neither of us would yield. The longer we fought, the weaker we became. I had thought the phoenix would have overwhelmed me with its power by now, but why hadn’t it?
The Wolbachia. I had almost forgotten the third force in the struggle. Did the tainted Lightning inside me infect the phoenix larva somehow? Spider had said that Wolbachia behaved differently depending on the species it infects, sometimes changing gender, other times killing them. What if it killed phoenixes? If the phoenix was fighting both me and the Wolbachia, then it would likely weaken under the double assault.
By now, I had taken much of the fire amber’s energies into me. What would happen if the phoenix larva died from the Wolbachia infection? I didn’t know, but I had a suspicion that it could be disastrous for me. Even if I died and the fire amber survived the resulting inferno, the Wolbachia would still kill the phoenix. I had to find a way to save us both, but I was swiftly running out of options.
I had to face my fear. What if I nullified the Wolbachia energy not by fighting the Widowing, but completing the transformation? I had been resisting the sex-change, which only made it worse. If I encouraged the metamorphosis instead, perhaps the tainted energy would be consumed in process. For this strategy to work, not only would I have to accept life as a woman, but also win the phoenix’s cooperation. It would have to help me channel the Wolbachia energy out of itself and into me.
I reconsidered my reluctance to become a woman. I had fought so hard to stay a man, but why? Was Mantis right that I wanted to prove myself as great a hero as Robin? Throughout my lives, I had chosen to recreate that first fraternity, the brotherhood of outlaws with our lofty dreams. However, only I had survived to rebuild that legacy, and I did a lousy job of it. After Mantis invented Maid Marian, the tale had changed so much that the real Robin was forgotten in favour of an idealized version. All I was able to do to honour my fallen comrades was to be the faithful companion, a part I played so well. Somehow, in trying to be the hero that Robin was, I had convinced myself that I could only do that in the mould of man.
But I had known strong women, like Jeanne D’Arc, like Elizabeth the First, like Spider.
Strength and honour did not belong to a single sex.
Spider had been right, back at the Catherine Palace. The recreations were as beautiful as the original, and no less worthy of admiration. The vision of the artist, the true essence of any masterpiece, lived on even if the original materials were gone. I would still be me even if my sex had changed. I might not like it, but at least I could continue to live, love…and scheme. And who knows? Maybe one day, I’d find a different way to regain my manhood.
But how could I communicate my plan to the phoenix larva? How could two minds, separated by species and millions of years, even begin to understand each other?
If the phoenix could not understand human language, perhaps it understood the basic instincts all living things knew: hunger, pain, birth and death. I projected my thoughts as images, praying it would understand our common ground.
…a man struggles with a phoenix, ants crawling over them both. They plummet off a cliff and drown in the river below…
…a woman holding the legs of a phoenix, coated with fire ants, jumping off the cliff but in cooperation, gliding to safety on the other side of the river where the woman picked the ants off the phoenix’s feathers…
The phoenix mind sent an image of flame in response. Did that mean understanding? I hoped so. It guided the Wolbachia energy towards me, and I opened myself to receive the Widowing. The tainted power of the Widowing power eagerly left the phoenix larva, rushing into me. I stripped away my physical memory of the Little John body and fortified the sum of my personality and memories, letting the Widowing sculpt my body into a woman’s but keeping the essence of who I was. Sparks cascaded from my head to my toes, cannibalizing my fondest parts to build new curves and unfamiliar organs.
Yet our battle had greatly weakened the phoenix. What would become of it, when my metamorphosis was complete? Mantis would exploit its fragility and enslave it. I couldn’t allow that, but how could I steal the fire amber from Mantis? Even if the phoenix had been at full strength, and I freed it from the amber, would it survive the modern world?
A wild idea occurred to me, a theft so outrageous that if I succeeded, I would inspire my first legend as a woman.
I communicated my idea to the phoenix, hoping it would understand freedom versus slavery; death and rebirth; trust and friendship. It might not comprehend all those concepts, but I hoped it could sense that I had the best of intentions.
The phoenix crafted another image of flame.
I took a deep breath and drained every spark of Lightning from the fire amber, channeling the power to complete the final alterations to my body. Stimulated, my follicles grew new hair, while the myriad changes finally coalesced into a well-proportioned female form.
At last, my hands were free to move. I held the amber egg in one hand and flexed my new fingers. The electric-blue amber tiles around me dimmed, leaving me in deepening shadow. I banged on the tiles. “Let me out!” I shouted. My voice had gone soprano.
My coffin was gently taken apart by Mantis’s men. Spider rushed over to help me sit up. I winced when she touched me, as my new skin was still tender. She looked me over, an apology in her eyes. “Oh, Flea. I’m afraid the Widowing’s won.”
I nodded sadly and held up the amber egg. It had turned so darkly red that it almost seemed black.
Mantis snatched the dead amber from me. “What happened?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “The Widowing was too strong. It murdered who I was and killed the larva, corrupting the energy. There never was a way to conquer the phoenix’s power.” I touched my face. Beardless and delicate.
“No.” Mantis buried her face in her hands.
“You honoured our deal, Mantis, so I will fulfill my part of the bargain. The Amber Room is rightfully yours.” I kissed Spider on the cheek. “Thank you, Spider, for all you’ve done for me. I’m a better woman for it.”
Spider helped me up and wrapped a blanket around me. “Come on, let’s go back to your room.”
“Thank you.” We left Mantis in the New Amber Room to cry over her burnt-out amber.
Spider opened the door to my room for me. “Will you be all right?” she asked.
“I think so,” I said, hobbling over to my bed. “This body feels strange, but I think just I need to get used to it.”
“Trust me. It’s not so bad being a woman,” Spider said. She leaned against the doorframe. “You survived the phoenix’s touch, and I’m glad.”
In the mirror, I saw my new body for the first time: a slim woman with shoulder-length black hair and hazel eyes. Like Mantis, I had a heart-shaped face, but the curves to my figure must have been lifted from Spider.
I sighed. “I suppose I could grow accustomed to this…in time.”
Spider smiled. “Would you like to try on some clothes? I think I have something in your size.”
“Maybe tomorrow. I need some time alone.”
“I understand. Sweet dreams.” She closed the door.
Grabbing a t-shirt and baggy shorts from my suitcase, I dressed. I dialed Thickett’s number on my satellite phone. “Thicks, it’s me again. Aguecheek.”
“It’s gotten worse, hasn’t it?” Thicks said.
“Like you wouldn’t believe. I’m done here. You can send the rest of the panels in the morning.”
“Your wish is my command.”
I hung up, picked up Spider’s copy of Orlando, and pulled a chair up to the window. Putting the potted plant aside, I opened the window and gazed into the night sky.
The phoenix wanted to live, but I knew it couldn’t survive long in the modern world. I ought to thank Spider for telling me about parthenogenesis. It gave me the idea to give the phoenix a new, healthy body to host its mind. I offered it a choice, and it chose life. Soon, I would be far from here, the phoenix-child safe within my womb, free from Mantis’s lust for power. My sudden motherhood was beyond frightening, but it was a fear I would strive to conquer. I would cherish my phoenix daughter, my Firefly, and protect her with my life.
I leaned back in the chair and began to read Orlando.
An hour later, a black rope lowered from the sky in front of the window. I stashed the book in a small bag of necessities and left one of my calling cards leaning against the Leda statuette. I squeezed through the window, grabbed the rope and climbed. At the top, Thicks helped me into the gondola of the black hot-air balloon. We floated up and away in the night, and soon Prorok Castle vanished beneath a bank of rolling fog.
Maybe I should have said good-bye to Spider, but that wouldn’t have been me. “I’m glad you remembered Milan,” I said.
“Hard to forget a midnight getaway in a bloody balloon,” Thicks said. “A car will meet us downwind.” He took off his night-vision goggles and looked me up and down. “Man, this is different, Felix. Er, should I still call you that, guv?”
“I suppose not. I’ll need a new passport.”
“Gotcha. Under what name?”
“Marian. Marian Robinson.” I smiled. The world would come to know a new legend.
Flea, Queen of Thieves.
Tony Pi is a Canadian linguist from Toronto. His award-winning story, The Stone Cipher, appears in Writers Of The Future Vol. XXIII, and his other works have seen print in Abyss & Apex, On Spec, Tales of the Unanticipated, and elsewhere. Another tale, Sphinx! is slated to appear in the forthcoming DAW anthology Ages Of Wonder.
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish