Chapter Thirty: Spare Parts
“What the actual f*ck.”
Halley, of course, prowling inquisitively between the lines of standing pods; I couldn't even muster that much. There was N, and there were... well, what were these? Clones? Spare copies?
“Thunor strike us,” breathed Cheren. “It's—”
“Explain,” I snapped, turning to Lisbeth. “Now. What are these, and why are they N?”
“Jared,” began Bianca, but I held up a hand to interrupt her.
“No. Lisbeth. What is going on here?”
She looked afraid, as if she thought I might attack her – and for all I knew, I might have done; there was a horrible wrongness about all these Ns, these rows and rows of deathless clones, and it swelled inside me like ice in pipes, threatening to burst me at the seams. I wanted— I don't know what I wanted. But I wanted to do it fiercely.
“He had a mummified body,” said Lisbeth, speaking far too fast. “A – a king, he said, an old king, and he wanted us to extract the DNA and grow a clone – several, he said, in case of trouble—”
“F*ck,” said Halley. “Do you remember? The first of the royal blood for thousands of years, N said. Didn't make sense at the time, did it? How could the monarchy be passed down? But if you found the body of the King...”
“That's why he's named N,” I said, an icy cold stealing through my skin. “It's the name he had before, just modernised a little.” I took a deep breath. “He isn't descended from Naudri at all. He is Naudri.”
“That's not quite how cloning works,” Cheren pointed out. “N is technically Naudri's son, but they're genetically identical.”
“Why?” I asked abruptly, not listening to him. “Why did he want this – why did he want the body cloned? And where did he get it?”
Lisbeth backed away slightly, raising her hands in a pacifying gesture.
“Look, I only know so much—”
“Then tell me whatever you do know,” I snapped. “Sun's sake, just talk already!”
“OK!” She swallowed. “I don't know where the body came from,” she said. “The desert, I think. It came in a sarcophagus like they've found over in the First Kingdom ruins, so I'm guessing it was there.”
“And why?” I asked.
“I don't know!” Lisbeth closed her eyes. “I don't know.” She opened them again. “Look,” she said, more calmly, “I'm just a scientist. I work for Ingen, not Harmonia. I just patched together the genetic information from the body and grew it. After that, Harmonia's men took the baby away – I just made forty more bodies as back-ups, like he'd asked. He took them too, for a few years, and then gave them back for me to put into slow growth stasis in here. I've come here once a week to check on them ever since.”
Something in my throat seemed to close up.
“How long?” I asked, dreading the answer. “How long have they been stuck in there?”
Lisbeth counted on her fingers.
“Er... five years?” she hazarded. “Since they were toddlers.”
“Wait,” said Cheren. “Five years?” He glanced at the clones. “They're as old as N, though.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Same age – about eight or nine.”
“What do you mean, eight or nine? They're clearly at least sixteen.”
“They look sixteen,” agreed Lisbeth. “But they matured much faster. So did N.” She paused. “Wait. You didn't know, did you?”
“Know what?” asked Halley. “I'm getting tired of this bullsh*t, so if you'd like to get to the f*cking point some time soon...?”
“They look human,” said Lisbeth, an earnest look on her face. “And they act human, too – or at least N does; these don't do anything at all. But if you look at their bones, and their brains, and their DNA... Well. They just aren't human.”
Niamh opened her eyes.
This did not change a thing.
She blinked. No. Still as dark as ever – unnaturally dark; darker than she'd ever known it to be before.
She took a deep breath, and felt a weight on her chest.
“Try not to breathe,” said a soft voice in her ear. “Moving only makes this trickier, and we do want you to survive the process.”
Niamh started and hit her head on stone.
“We asked you not to move,” said the voice. It had something of the buzz of flies about it, and Niamh knew, all at once and without being told, that it was an aspect of Weland. Not all of him, but some at least.
Niamh lay very still, and concentrated.
Where was she? In some very small, narrow space – possibly entombed, she thought. That was alarming, but not insurmountable. The voice said they wanted her alive, after all, so she wouldn't die.
OK, thought Niamh, I can deal with that.
Unfortunately, that wasn't all there was to it.
Her clothes were gone, and in their place it felt like some kind of shroud or bandage was being wrapped around her. They began at her feet, and wound up tightly about her body to the chest, where she could feel them winding further, somehow slipping between her back and the stone beneath her with each revolution.
Niamh thought of sarcophagi and mummies.
Niamh thought of Ezra's choking bands of grey light.
Niamh thought of curses that were sculpted flesh.
“What are you doing to me?” she whispered faintly, clinging resolutely to the remnants of her iron will.
“We are making you anew,” the voice whispered back, like a lover in her ear. “Such a prize specimen is not to be passed up, Niamh Harper. You will be a choice gem in our diadem indeed.”
I am not afraid, Niamh told herself. I am Niamh Harper and I am not afraid of anything, so I'm definitely not f*cking afraid now—
But she was, and with the Hellerune in her ear there was no way she could deny it – no way anyone could; no Beowulf or Hercules, no Atalanta or Osiris or even Baldr, could have found a way to shut the fear out of their mind with the soul of decay itself upon their chest.
Something snapped inside her, and Niamh began to cry.
“Not human,” I repeated. “What do you mean, not human?”
“I mean exactly that,” replied Lisbeth. “Not human. Not a member of the species Homo sapiens.”
“Well, what are they then?” asked Bianca.
“Something different. I don't know enough to work out the specifics. I just grow clones.” Perhaps she noticed the look on my face, because she carried on hurriedly, “These grow fast – as in, they grow at a constant rate and get larger faster. Their muscles mature rapidly, too, and their brains – or at least, N's did. These clones don't have brains; if N were to suffer a fatal injury, Harmonia would have his transplanted into them.”
“This is some seriously f*cked-up sh*t,” said Halley. “You grew forty-odd people without brains in case N died?”
Lisbeth looked nervous.
“We did need them,” she said defensively. “N's body isn't strong, and he's allergic to pretty much everything you find in a modern city, from plastics and asphalt to petrol fumes and virtually every artificial additive in any food, ever. He's gone into major anaphylactic shock hundreds of times and died eight times over the last nine years.”
“I can't believe this,” I said, shaking my head and stepping back. “No, I can't – these are all—”
“It's a little disturbing if you're not used to it, I agree,” said Lisbeth. “But N is a very fragile person, and these aren't humans. They aren't anything – just shells that look like people.”
“Let's leave the ethics aside for one moment,” said Cheren, in a tone of voice that convinced me that he hadn't considered them even for a second, “and let Lisbeth finish telling us about N's... species.”
“How can you leave the ethics aside?” I asked, gesturing wildly at the cryo-chambers. “She made forty zombies and keeps them in chest freezers!”
“In the name of keeping a very ill boy alive,” protested Lisbeth. “It's not like these bodies have minds. They're literally just meat until they need them.”
“I – I guess she does have a point,” said Bianca doubtfully. “It's not so bad, Jared...”
I could see that, I really could. I knew there was no suffering involved, and that the bodies only looked human (or almost-human, or whatever N was). But that wasn't the problem; it was more that whatever N was, whatever Naudri was, it was something more than this – something that was profaned by this, something that shared its essence with the dragons and with the city of granite and porphyry. It was something that Lisbeth had no business cutting up and resurrecting – something that should have been handled only by a Sun-Priest, not by a scientist.
(What was a Sun-Priest, I wondered distractedly. I had no idea.)
“Fine,” I said, suddenly exhausted. “Fine, fine. Go on then, Lisbeth.”
“About N's species?”
“Yeah. About that.”
“Well, like I said, they grow fast – but they don't reach sexual maturity when you'd expect,” she said. “None of the specimens has developed any recognisable secondary sexual characteristics as yet; they're all still prepubescent. Which is normal for a nine-year-old, but not normal for someone the size and shape of a sixteen-year-old.”
“Man,” said Halley. “You would not know it from his voice. You'd think it'd be all high and squeaky, but nope. Bari sax all the way.”
“The vocal range is deeper from birth,” said Lisbeth. “There was no breaking of the voice.”
I eyed her with distaste. I didn't like the dispassionate approach she was taking.
“All right,” said Cheren. “Do you know any more?” Lisbeth shook her head. “Then start taking photos,” he said to Bianca and me. “Harmonia must have suspected we, or perhaps that Ezra guy, were on our way here, and thought to use the protests as a way of stopping us. Why? Because this is all very, very illegal, and if information about this gets out, it's going to destroy his career.”
“We could stop his whole campaign,” Bianca cried. “There'd be an inquiry—”
“Send it all to the League,” I said. “If Shauntal had this information and photos to back it up, she could get it all over the country in half an hour.”
Lisbeth looked alarmed.
“Look,” she said, “I know the legality of this is kinda questionable, but so was resurrecting that Archen—”
“Where's the body?” I asked suddenly.
“Naudri's body,” I clarified, as Cheren started taking photos with his phone. “What did you do with it?”
“Nothing. I mean, Harmonia took it away afterwards. I mean, hey, please don't take pictures—”
“Don't worry, we won't implicate you,” said Bianca kindly. “You've been really helpful.”
“I suppose so,” said Cheren, taking a close-up of one of the frozen clones. “Though I don't suppose Ingen looks after its own, does it?”
“No,” said Lisbeth sourly. “It doesn't. Seriously, could we talk—?”
Cheren twitched his fingers and Justine was on her shoulders in an instant, claws ready to curl into the flesh of her throat. Lisbeth looked surprised – hell, I probably looked surprised; what with everything else, I'd forgotten Justine entirely.
“All right,” said Lisbeth, swallowing. “I'll take that as a 'no'.”
“I'd rather be reasonable than violent,” said Cheren, without looking at her, “but to be honest, you rather threw reason out the window when you began human experimentation.”
“They aren't human—”
“But they are a species of human, aren't they?” asked Cheren. “They must be. They couldn't be so similar to us and not be at least in the hominin group, if not in the genus Homo.”
Lisbeth was silent.
“I thought so,” he said. “The men and women of the First Kingdom – they weren't our humans, were they? They must have been something else – a species of human that developed civilisation slightly earlier. That built the nameless city of granite and porphyry when we were still stabbing wild cattle with pointed sticks. They're not Homo sapiens. But they are human, and you brought them back to life in a world that they can no longer live in.”
“N,” I said. “He said the same thing about Candy...”
“Ark?” said Candy, hearing her name, but she didn't get a response.
“Jesus Christ,” said Halley. “He wasn't being insightful. He was being empathetic. He's as dislocated in time as she is.”
I stared at Lisbeth.
“You started this,” I said, not quite able to believe what I said. “That's what it was then – two types of human, two dragons. Two heroes versus one King. It's the same now, and why now? Because you brought him back. That's why the war is starting all over again.” I shook my head slowly. “One thing. One resurrection, and all this...”
“Damn,” said Cheren, breaking into my reverie. “No signal. Bianca?”
“Oh, signal's terrible all over the Cold Storage,” said Lisbeth, eager to be helpful and get back into our good books. “Lots of the older warehouses date back to the British occupation. The roofs are thick and packed with lead – you won't get a signal until you get back over the bridge.”
“Guess we'll have to wait til then to send the pictures.” Bianca slipped her phone back into her bag. “So, I guess we'd better get moving? I mean, we need to get those pictures out there as soon as possible.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Let's get the f*ck out of here.”
Justine mewed from Lisbeth's shoulder, as if to ask what we were going to do with her.
“Ah,” said Cheren. “Yes. I have to say, I wouldn't really feel comfortable beating Lisbeth into unconsciousness.”
“Neither would I,” said Lisbeth. “How about you just leave me here? I'll sit tight and – and pretend this never happened.”
Cheren looked at me.
“What do you think?”
“Fine. Whatever. Can we just get out of here?”
“OK, OK.” He gestured to Justine and she leaped back down to the floor. “Come on, then,” he said. “Let's go.”
“Go? Oh, come on. You only just got here – won't you stay a while?”
“You can turn around,” said the voice. “I'm not going to kill you.”
“Woden hang 'em,” I groaned, seeing who it was. “Another of you f*cking Sages.”
The Sage shrugged, which made his ridiculous hat bob and nearly fall off his head.
“What can I say,” he said. “We get around.”
“What accent is that?” asked Bianca. “Are you all from different parts of the world?”
“We are the wisest and the most powerful!” said the Sage theatrically, throwing his arms wide. “Gathered from all around the world by Ghetsis Harmonia, who serves as our head.” He withdrew his arms quickly. “Agh. It's cold in here, isn't it? I hate that. Don't move,” he added, as I began to run at him, and I saw something enormous rise silently up from behind him – a great face of jagged ice, trailing chains of snowy lights from its upper lip. It did not have eyes; in their place, it had two soft orbs of cold, cold blue light, and though they did not move I was certain they were fixed on me.
“Drop the gun and kick it over here,” ordered the Sage. “You could shoot, and maybe you'd get me. But you wouldn't get both me and my Cryogonal before my Cryogonal got you, and once my Cryogonal got you, you wouldn't be getting anything. You'd be a bit too dead.”
Cheren dropped the gun and kicked it over to him; the Sage scooped it up and tossed it across to Roy, who had just emerged from the gold storage area.
“Hello,” he said, with a certain savage humour.
“Hey, Roy,” I replied. “How's your head?”
“Good to know.”
“Roy contacted me when he woke up in the bin,” said the Sage.
“Speaking of which – who are you, exactly?” asked Cheren.
“Ah! But of course. My name is Zinzolin—”
“Zanzolah?” asked Bianca.
“—and you are Cheren, Bianca and Jared.” Zinzolin frowned. “No, Zinzolin.”
“He's French, Bianca,” said Cheren quietly. “It's his accent.”
“F*ck you,” said Zinzolin. “I'm Belgian.”
“So make a f*cking waffle,” retorted Halley. “Now there's a reference I never thought I'd get to make.”
Zinzolin snapped something in French and the Cryogonal roared – at least, I think it roared; there was a sound like the wind howling in midwinter when it's heavy with snow, and I was reasonably sure that it came from between the Cryogonal's parted lips.
There was silence.
“Thank you,” said Zinzolin. “Now. Let us get to the point, shall we? You” – he jabbed his finger in our direction, and the Cryogonal bobbed fiercely – “have been taking photos. And this we cannot allow.”
“Did you think me and the protest were the only things standing in your way?” asked Roy. “Sage Zinzolin's been waiting in the middle of the protesters.”
“Like Gorm,” I said, narrowing my eyes. “You Sages seem to like going around with hypnotised crowds.”
Zinzolin wagged a finger.
“This isn't about me,” he said. “This is about you, and your snooping.” He made as if to pat his Cryogonal, then noticed the frosty mist rising from its skull and thought better of it. “We were told not to kill you,” said Zinzolin. “It is N's will. But there was nothing about freezing you in blocks of ice and gifting you to King Weland. He is very keen to meet you,” he added, looking directly at me. “He would love to add you to his collection.”
I felt sick – sick and angry; angry that we had lost, angry that there was nothing I could do, angry that we were going to Weland of all people. I wanted something solid between my hands with which to smash the Cryogonal into pieces – but what good would it do? It was almost certainly faster than me, and tougher than it looked, and there was Roy with the gun...
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bianca's hand wind nervously into Cheren's, and I thought of Annie, alone and wondering why I wasn't returning calls; I wondered what would happen to Cordelia, to Harlow, to Mum and Dad – what would everyone say when I was dead or something even worse in the halls of the demon king.
“How about you don't freeze us in blocks of ice?” asked Halley nervously. “Really. I mean, Han Solo is cool and all, but I don't want to emulate his untimely demise.”
Zinzolin pretended to consider it.
“No,” he said. “No, I think we'll go with the freezing.”
Lisbeth put up her hand timidly.
“What about me?” she asked.
“You? Oh, the scientist. Don't worry, you're safe, despite your betrayal – you're the only one who can look after these.”
He waved a hand at the clones.
“Actually,” Lisbeth began, “anyone with the right— You know what? Yes, I am the only one in the whole world who can look after them.”
“Return your Purrloin,” said Zinzolin. “One less thing to freeze.”
Cheren did. He didn't say anything, but his lips were taut, and he kept the light glinting off his glasses so that his eyes could not be seen.
Bianca didn't say anything either. She didn't need to; her face said it all.
I took Candy from my shoulder and held her close, in front of me. Halley paced indecisively before us.
“F*ckf*ckf*ckf*ck,” she said. “No, this isn't – we can't lose, not now, not when we've found this—”
“You think so?” asked Zinzolin, regarding her disinterestedly. “Ah, well. Not so. Hexagel,” he said, suddenly switching to French. “Glaciation!”
The Cryogonal's mouth gaped, and I shut my eyes as the air around me burst into horrendous, blood-freezing cold—
When the work was done, Weland lifted his Hand from the body of Niamh Harper, and left the sarcophagus to let the new flesh cool.
The Hand crossed the Gaol hall, and climbed back up the stairs to the Great Western Transept, where the Gaoler had her office. It did not knock, nor did it open the door, but the Gaoler knew that the Hand was there, as everyone always knew when the Hand was there, and opened the door for it.
“My lord,” she said, lowering herself. (It would be incorrect to say she bowed, or that she curtseyed. She lacked the proper limbs for such a manoeuvre.)
“Thejne Yaghda,” replied the Hand. “Release Harmonia's man.”
The Hand made a gesture of affirmation. (It would be incorrect to say it nodded, for much the same reason that it would be incorrect to say that Yaghda bowed.)
“Portland Smythe,” said the Hand of Weland.
“Where shall we leave him, my lord?”
“Anywhere,” replied the Hand. “We keep our word. We promised the warrior that he would be released, and so he shall.”
“Does that mean we might release him very far above the ground?”
“Of course. You might watch him, too, to see how he bounces.”
Yaghda's substance flexed with pleasure.
“It shall be done, my lord.”
The Hand left, and began to stalk back towards the throne room. Yaghda, for her part, made her way downstairs, back into the Tomb-Gaol. She crossed the hall, opened up the wall—
“Ah,” said Yaghda, staring. A few of her eyes migrated to the front of her body, just to make sure she wasn't missing anything – but there could be no mistake.
The little chamber was empty.
Portland Smythe had escaped.
—and then gradually warmed again.
“Ouch,” said an unfamiliar voice. “That hurt.”
I opened my eyes. There was a man standing in front of us – no, not a man; he had wings, or something dark and nebulous that looked a little like wings, arching out from his back, shielding us from the Cryogonal's breath. Frost hung heavily on his hair and the shadow-stuff of his wings, and it cracked and fell to the floor in showers as he moved.
“But it all serves a purpose,” he went on, his wings folding away into nothingness. “It is only the attacked who can use the Riposte.”
He stepped forwards and laid his hands on the Cryogonal, and an unearthly sheen flared across its surface; its mouth flopped open, and then its lower jaw detached completely and smashed on the floor. A moment later, the rest of its body followed – and there was nothing more than a heap of glassy shards to show that there had ever been anything there at all.
“Roy,” he said. “Shoot him.”
Roy did, and the man's hand jumped forwards so fast it made my eyes water. He opened his fingers, and a little flattened disc of metal fell out.
“Would you care to try again?” asked the man. “Only it seems rather a waste of ammunition.”
“Sh*t,” said Zinzolin, and I thought in that moment he sounded much more Unovan than French. (Or Belgian, or whatever.) “It's you, isn't it? The rebel.”
The man bowed.
“At your service. Or rather, at your service.”
He turned and nodded to us, and I saw his face for the first time – soft-edged, long, with large, haunted eyes.
“Now,” said the rebel. “Hero, accomplices – let's leave. We can safely leave these three here; should they somehow muster the courage to mount some form of assault, I have no doubts at all that we can repulse it.”
I would have asked what he meant by 'Hero', but I wasn't up to it; I couldn't even think straight. N was the clone of Naudri, who wasn't human, and there was another Sage, and an impossible man had taken the frozen breath of a Cryogonal and caught bullets. If there's anyone on Earth who could still react to anything after experiencing all that in less than five minutes, I'd like to meet them.
So we trailed out, following the rebel in his battered suit and dark coat; felt Zinzolin's eyes on us, smouldering with rage; felt Roy and Lisbeth watching in confusion and fear.
We had escaped death and the King, I thought, but where were we going now?
Niamh opened her eyes, and pushed the lid of the sarcophagus aside with one hand. She climbed up and out, rubbing her neck with greying fingers, and regarded the two smiling men standing before her with interest.
“Good morning, boss,” said one. “We brought you your weeds.”
Niamh took the suit from him and the bowler hat from his comrade, and stared at them for a moment.
Then, all at once, and quite without reason, she began to grin, and she did not stop.