AMBER: LIQUID, WHISPERING
In the end, you can burn all of the strangefolk, of course. What differs is the preparation, as Hania knows very well.
Sylpheets need to be taken out from their wooden caskets, the bark stripped, their long limbs with appendages broken. You can throw them into the Furnace after that. For ogres, you need to break their shells with huge coal-driven pliers. Hania keeps phosphoresques separate, well in accordance with the guidelines. She uses these crimson-orange strangefolk as additives when the flames start to dwindle.
This time, it is a seraph.
Hania picks up the metallic body from the huge conveyor belt. Her shoulders ache when she lifts the creature and puts it on the ground. She never drops them. You can hear thuds and clinks from other worker girls along the belt as they drop their strangefolk. Hania doesn't do it this way. It's just a habit, like being left-handed, or eating the porridge before the broth.
The seraph on the floor stares into nothingness with four eyes like slits into the incineration chamber. There is a long gash along its belly. A clear scab has formed in the place. One of its limbs is broken and twisted. Hania stretches her fingers in the gloves and starts plucking out feathers one after another.
The feathers are of different sizes and metallic sheen but always of the same shape. They are embedded deep in the chicken-coloured skin but there is one angle that allows the shaft to slide out easily. The end sometimes cracks like a biscuit, the same as breaking a sylpheet finger off. Hania leaves the chipped-away tips in the skin. The guidelines allow that.
She dumps the bare body into the shaft. Shaft 113D, the little plate says. Allocated to her, at least during her twelve-hour shift. She never sees the girl who swaps with her. They always leave the worker space as a group, the bark-stripping knives, the hammers, everything left behind. This is the time when the belts stop, too. Only the Furnace knows how long that pause is.
The seraph—or what's left of him—disappears from view, swallowed by darkness. Darkness first, the heat and light and scorching embrace of the Furnace after that.
Hania sweeps the floor and puts everything in large barrels. They are black and dirty, their contents like liquid metal. There is one platinum feather just under the belt, out of reach, and a small heap of silvery dust around it. Before Hania has time to fetch something long to poke the feather with, the alarm goes off.
Someone somewhere has gone astray from the path of the Furnace. Or something entirely different. Hania never knows. Nobody does. You can always rely on the judgment of the Furnace—when it says masks on, you don't hesitate.
A worker girl calls out, someone else laughs. A silly-sounding laughter of relief. The amber feels warm when Hania puts the mask on.
The mask is made from a single piece of the finest Czavian amber. There are two attached oculi and a speaker-device covering the mouth. The mask gives Hania's view of the world a strange, honey-like quality. Sometimes, the heat in the vicinity of the Furnace is so intense the mask seems to get gluey and almost flows on Hania's face. Other times it rasps and itches on her skin.
This time it is soothing. Calm waves flow over Hania's body. There aren't pictures or films today, not really. More like ornaments of an infinite array of orange and yellows, ochre and red. It pours over Hania and engulfs her in warm pleasure. She kneels down and has to steady herself with her arms outstretched. It feels like a reward. We've done something well today, all of us, she thinks. Something good for the Furnace.
Later, when she comes back to her workplace, the feather is gone and the silvery dust seems swept away by a human hand.
Like every morning, Valeriy gets up from the cold duvet and thinks about slashing the neck artery while he shaves with a straight razor. It would happen almost by accident, letting the fingers press more and sever layers of connective tissue and underlying vessels, blaming the slip of a hand afterwards, mouth full of bloody bubbles. All the power of the past years of this job, in this place, in this society, gambled in one razor-sharp slice.
It has become almost a habit—switching off the brass alarm clock, shuffling to the bathroom, contemplating suicide. And like every day and all the mornings before, he tells himself tiredly: No, not today.
He puts on his mask. It is smaller than the usual types, covering only a portion of his face, with a strap around his nape. The mask of an engineer. He's never quite sure whether he's supposed to put it on after the grey suit and coat, or walk around his tiny flat with his night shorts, socks and mask on. He adjusts it and his skin seems to stop breathing. The world becomes an amber planet.
A knock on the door announces the papers. Valeriy unbolts the door and accepts the folder—worn leather, coal brown, smelling of sweat. Just like the workman who's carrying it. Skin like a parchment, soot-black eyes without focus. The man hands it in and walks away without a word. Valeriy doesn't realize he's wearing the mask—it merges with your skin, becomes a comfortable part of you. The wardrobe seems to be staring at him as he goes back to his desk.
The paperwork comes straight to Valeriy's home. It keeps him occupied from the very morning. Most of the sheets are blank, greyish white. There is a space at the bottom, marked by a little dot. He places his signature there. The papers never address him directly. There are no question or exclamation marks, no names.
Valeriy goes through reports, production charts and more blanks. He signs all of them, including the blanks. Valeriy can only speculate about the ways the empty papers could be used. Anything from new sewage-treatment plants to death warrant and declarations of war. It is not his job to think about the following steps in the process.
There is a kerosene-shortage announcement, some additional information about the upcoming shipment of limestone. And on the last paper that he picks up:
Subversive(s) detected. To be caught within five days: _ _ _
And above the line, seemingly meant for handwriting but printed in the same dull font, laconic: one subversive piece.
The Ironfist awakens, shaken by the Furnace.
It opens its eyes and realizes it's already wearing a mask. This type feels fluid, mucilaginous, and huge, so huge a normal human could get lost inside. It is a mask that can be accessed, penetrated, inhabited.
The Ironfist doesn't think of itself as having any kind of gender. Most of the time, it sees that as an advantage. It is not sure about its own species but stays very certain about the species that are considered clean, and which are to be consumed by the Furnace.
The Ironfist stretches its long, sleek fingers. It moves legs that seem to consist of bones only. Then it slips in and out of the mask, phasing between two worlds like a strange quantum being. In the physical world, it opens the door of its tight compartment. Inside the mask, it connects with thousands of other masks, finds a message and decides to act. The message features the word someone.
The trouble with the word someone, of course, is that it could mean a lot of people, everybody, including the Ironfist itself.
Hania's eyes are pitch black, the colour of soot, the colour of sorrow and black holes. They stare unblinkingly into the abyss of the amber mask. This is one of the regular showings. The usual, you might say—a stream of black-and-white images, covered by an amber veil. Usually during the morning shift, the alarm goes off, everyone puts their masks on and the dose of information, so illustrative and clear, surges in.
There are images of the men of Czavia, the sergeants, the captains, the troopers. They pierce the hides of the vicious wolfir, stud ogre bellies with nailguns. They lob grenades in victorious arches. Sometimes there is a voice, deep and humming like a machine come alive, commenting on everything, citing numbers. Sometimes all you can hear are clicks and regular putt-putts. Often the masks stop in the middle of a shot, other times the scene plays in a mode faster than reality.
Czavia prevails nevertheless. The men gather, stand by their women who work hard for them in the factories. They wave, cry and laugh. And all together look up to the Furnace.
That's what the Furnace calls people, apparently. They are meant to call each other comrade, man to woman, woman to man, no greetings allowed otherwise. But the Furnace calls them pieces. That is the language of the paperwork.
Valeriy knows all there is to know about iron, from its birth to its end, from ore to rust. He has no qualification for tracking culprits. Nobody has taught him to find subversive elements. Do you apply for the militia to be sent to every corner? Do you hire informers? Browbeat a random passer-by?
Five days. What follows after that? Has there ever been a moment of failure in his life?
Valeriy is walking to the Furnace. His shoes clang on metal steps, then thud on a concrete platform. He passes the walls of a gigantic foundry like a grey shadow on the walls.
He is thinking about days and minutes, the wardrobe inside his apartment, and the Furnace, of course.
The Furnace might provide some more clues. The Furnace knows all.
He passes halls and endless corridors. He walks under huge, always-humming conveyor belts. Two workmen with all-black eyes appear from the shadows and nod at him; one mutters a silent comrade. Valeriy answers back. Through the speaker, his voice sounds so distorted he wouldn't recognize himself. He continues to add something comforting but the mask changes the phrasing, as it sometimes does. It comes out as Go on about your business. Defeated and torpid, Valeriy whispers please, but the mask doesn't react.
The Furnace looms behind one of the giant coke storage halls. It seems to be calling, looking at Valeriy. Asking about the subversive piece. Valeriy speeds up. He clenches his fists and utters please please please through dry, chapped lips. He doesn't hear his own voice from the mouthpiece.
Certain words never leave the mask.
Hania continues folding and breaking the twig-like fingers of a sylpheet. The pattern helps her think, guiding her thoughts. Fold one knuckle, then the other next to it so the finger makes an arch. Then break it off. Eight on one hand, four arms per body.
Several copper and tin and platinum feathers have disappeared so far. Clearly. And these are only the ones that she noticed. There might be more, lots more. Fold, fold, break.
There is someone doing something that is not in accordance with the guidelines. It could be anyone, really. Hania is only sure about one thing, or at least she thinks so—it is not her taking the things.
She has never made a trap before. In fact, the list of things she has ever made would be very short. The outcome is a temptation her head can't find a way around. Crack, crack, the fingers sing as she breaks them into pieces.
She needs to know more, certainly. If you report—share with the mask—there are rewards promised. Better working hours, better jobs. Or something beyond everyone's imagination: a transfer. Transfer to a different place.
Any suspicious activity, anything that the Furnace might call an alarm for. You do it first, before there the need for such an alarm arises. You are there first.
You help everybody—every single mask—by reporting.
The Ironfist stops abruptly. A single tone emerges through the murmur and the chatter of the masks. Something is about to be revealed. The Ironfist kneels down. The tone twists and turns, finds the Ironfist in the sea of the masks. Yes. There will be a revelation. A new turn of events, something the Furnace might have anticipated but did not share before.
A revelation. Perhaps directly from the Furnace—an honour—or from the collection of a myriad of masks. One piece is not needed anymore. Another one is required, in an odd, unexpected way.
The Ironfist stands up and through the network of amber masks sends out its thoughts. They skitter like bugs, change into orders, proliferate. Two masks will respond soon.
One will be persuaded. The other one given a chance.
Both have lost, without knowing it, right now, right there, of course.
Hania knows this man. It is the engineer. His mask is unmistakable, his suit clean and other-worldly.
She also knows, somehow senses that he knows he's being watched. Hania would like to avert her soot-black gaze but it is impossible. Her eyes play their own game with their own rules.
The man takes a deep breath—his chest puffs out like an ulcer. He ducks and his hand gropes and twitches like a dying rat after one of the militia boys hits it with a hand nailgun. A clasp on the large strap at the back of his head shines through the sooty air. Finally, he takes hold of the feather placed on the floor by Hania. A large specimen of shining copper, polished so much it must seem unreal, suspicious. Hania is holding her breath so much she starts seeing little stars. She thinks This is going to be the last image I see in my life—a crouching man, caressing a feather.
Then the man looks directly at her, hiding among barrels, left behind by the girls from her shift. He cries out, like a cold wind on summer nights playing flute with the numerous chimneys. Before Hania gasps for air and finds the time and courage to react, he runs away, his steps disappearing, echoing among the steel ribs of the ceiling, dying away.
Valeriy closes the door of the lift and presses the only button that is there. One button for his home. You don't need anything else when you have this part of the building just for yourself.
As the humming brings the cabin higher and higher, he starts to get angrier and angrier.
It was stupid to get so close to the worker quarters. He shouldn't have gone there. Or he should have waited for longer, much longer. The girl must have been hiding there for only a minute or two. It was the first time he did something of this sort—taking a piece of something as hideous as the strangefolk. Or pieces of strangefolk. Where on earth did he get the idea? Horrible, dangerous idea.
Valeriy looks down and he sees his palms clutching the feather, fiddling with it playfully. He watches his own fingers trace the line of the shaft and caress the tip. He drops the thing, suddenly amazed.
It wasn't the only time. Not the first.
The question is: Was it the last time?
The door of the lift creaks. The door opposite belongs to Valeriy's apartment.
He almost runs, unlocks the door. The wardrobe stares at him. He opens the door of the wardrobe so fast it slams into the wall next to it.
What are you trying to do? Build a pair of wings for you to fly away? Or a whole seraph, while at it?
There are maybe hundreds of them. Copper and those of the very rare gold variety, brass and silver and some that seem covered in verdigris. The wardrobe is full of seraph feathers.
Valeriy's hands twitch. They know how many times he has touched them, run his fingers alongside them, pressed them and scratched them with his nails.
Every time trying to picture them flying. Somewhere, during certain times of the day, they do, you know, he tells himself. They do fly. They roam and rise and fall and fight. Even the troopers, stupid and simple, get to see them fly, quite likely. But such stories are never told.
Valeriy knows such thoughts are dangerous. Unwanted.
His gaze shifts to the side. There is one window in the apartment. It would be too easy to run across the room, sprint with full strength of his thighs and calves. Run and never stop.
There is someone, then. One culprit, one enemy. One subversive piece. Valeriy will report.
You help every single mask by reporting.
Valeriy takes out a folded sheet of paper he's been carrying around in his pocket. There is a new section, added by his own hand.
Name of subversive piece: _ _ _
He picks up a pen from his desk, tries to steady his hand, and writes down a name.
I cannot give you more, my child.
Hania is puzzled during the last days on her shift. She sleeps with her mask to be soothed and lullabied. But the mornings are gloomy and there is a strange aftertaste in her mouth. The same as in her mind, actually.
There is one sentence that keeps repeating itself, as if the mask was stuck on one track of a graphite disc.
I cannot give you more, my child.
Does it mean a reward, or a refusal?
To distinguish between the voice of her mask and her own consciousness is beyond her powers. She is aware of that, at least.
She has reported. She has told everything she knows to the mask, sobbing and kneeling down. Described the man, the dozens of feathers he must have taken. Confessed from the loss of understanding, her inability to grasp why this is happening, why all this is bringing dangerous ideas to her mind.
She walks from the shift with her head full of thoughts.
Is there anything I will miss? The hand-washing after the shift, watching the soot and dust and death leave through the lead pipe. Perhaps the phosphoresques, fragile and small, burning bright on their way down the Shaft 113D?
And then, piercingly:
What am I getting, anyway?
Valeriy is running to the Furnace.
His feet thud their way to salvation. He runs because there is a final line with a promise of forgiveness. His mask accentuates his respiration. The whole world is breathing heavily and fast.
He passes the place where the wardrobe has landed in a collar of glass shards. Valeriy almost broke his wrist when he pushed the thing towards the window. The feathers are scattered like some entrails of a metal beast, like the contents of an exotic armoury.
He runs past a group of worker girls. His eyes search the faces frantically. In the sweep of his motion, all their faces seem the same.
The last steps take him to the shadow of the Furnace. It stands like a dark fortress, a massive being scratching the underbellies of the grey clouds above. Its many turrets and vaults create a canopy both welcoming and terrifying.
A true master, Valeriy thinks when he stops and looks up.
I have come to confess, he whispers into the mask.
The paper has greyed, aged in Valeriy's pocket. The wrinkle-like folds have deleted some of the letters. The name in the last section is Valeriy's.
He closes his eyes and touches the huge metal plate forming a little portion of the side of the Furnace. It feels warm and welcoming, yet there is a whiff of expectancy in the air. Something is not right.
A powerful grip seizes his forearm. Valeriy wriggles and slips. The grip is so strong, a vice made of flesh; it abrades his skin and stops a few centimeters further, crushing his wrist.
He screams in pain and closes his eyes for a second. When he opens them again, he's staring into the large, liquid mask of the Ironfist.
The Ironfist doesn't know how to speak. It hasn't been instructed to do so. Sometimes it thinks all its existence resembles a knot of programmes. A programmed piece.
But aren't we all?
It looks at Valeriy and his tears, and it doesn't feel the right emotions. Only curiosity and a sense of obedience, twisted but ever-present.
It's all a lie, isn't it? Valeriy cries like a madman, a snotty nose and blood on his split lip. There is no war, no losses on our side, we are the murderers!
Quiet now, the Ironfist thinks and Valeriy goes silent, his mask taking over, translating and helpful. A set of instructions passes through the amber, Valeriy surprised and scared at first, then gulping thirstily. The Ironfist nods. Now the engineer understands. He will do everything by himself.
The Ironfist looks at the Furnace and stares into the blackness of its walls for a second. The pieces are taken care of. The Ironfist itself will soon be diluted among the masks.
It focuses on Valeriy and his hand, almost torn away now. Then it presents an object with a silver sheen, lying in its sleek palm. Valeriy accepts it with his healthy hand. It is a thing of the same dual nature as the Ironfist itself—able to kill body and mind, visible both on the pale palm and through the masks—a small but powerful revolver.
A lot of things seem unreal to Hania.
She wonders if there is a catch, somewhere, hidden by someone. She packed a suitcase, toothbrush, nightgown, a small mirror, an aluminium cutlery set. She went by foot to a place her mask showed. She's never known there was such a place in this forsaken kingdom of heat—a cold platform the size of a corridor, the beginning of tiny rails. She got on a self-driven carriage, no porters, no engine drivers or steam masters. Everything seemed easy. Yes, almost too easy to be true. A worn seat smelling of dust, a circular window like that of a submarine, studded with rivets. The train jerked forward and set off. The motion seemed like the easiest thing in the world. And yet. There is this nagging feeling, hidden like a nail-shot in a haystack. Hidden like a shiny feather underneath a humming conveyor belt.
All is orchestrated. Me, my report, my trap. This train, too—it is just another conveyor belt.
The train gathers speed, passing the foundries, bleak halls and dreary houses with windows illuminated like holes into slag.
A miniscule train that will take her… where? To a place where she can start anew. Have a better job, find a partner, go on walks and drink clear water. She could follow the rail onwards. Change trains and then again, with the sun always a little bit closer. And the artificial heat of the Furnace long behind.
She might even get closer to the border, find the right place and time and leave Czavia altogether. Free, at last. Such a short word, but so intoxicating just to let it cross an empty mind. Even more intoxicating—she looks at the mask sitting next to her, like a sleeping pet curled up on the shabby seat—than the mask.
In an instant surge of panic, Hania thinks that this is unreal, indeed. There is no escape. There are different Furnaces everywhere. Different ones, but Furnaces still. And every Furnace needs someone to look after its needs, day and night, and some strangefolk to burn.
She holds the mask and presses it against her belly. The amber feels liquid, whispering.
As the carriage accelerates, Hania catches a last fleeting look of the Furnace, the endless pipes, conveyor systems and kilometres of staircases and ladders. Her eyes open wide, black as despair and underground tunnels, and there is a visible flash near one of the steaming openings.
A flash of hope, or the last sane blast of memory.
TOM HADRAVA is a Czech writer whose work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction and MirrorDance, as well as in numerous other places in Czech. He lives in a small historical town in the Czech Republic with his charming wife and two sons. His amber mask is kept in the cellar, hidden, waiting, dreaming.