Elizabeth Chambers–Ring Master

Elizabeth Chambers–Ring Master

“We call it the Post-Modern Renaissance. The Revivals of our past have the potential to replenish a society too caught up in the quest for order and efficiency to appreciate our chaotic roots—they are a cure for our insufferable obsession with numbers and facts, the cult-like obsession with the future and its preservation . . . The stories of the past weave the loose threads of the future. Without them, the fabric of life is nothing.”

—Director Antonio Remedia, at a press conference following the launch of Histrium Technologies

 

Emma jerked awake. Slowly, her eyes focused on the seat in front of her. She gripped the armrests of her chair and was surprised to feel her wrists strain against cold, metallic restraints. Her breath caught in her throat and she suppressed a cry of rising panic.

“Please remain seated,” calmly intoned a voice from nowhere.

Emma’s pale blue eyes widened, frantically looking up and scanning the seats around her, rows of gray-blue chairs with unsuspecting occupants who appeared to be sleeping. At the top of the wall to her right a narrow window ran along the length of the curved ceiling. She craned her neck, straining forward to glimpse at the blur outside.

“Please remain seated,” the voice repeated.

She shrank back, trying to steady her breathing. The chairs, the window, the voice . . . all of it so . . . so strange. Too smooth, too flat and gray. Emma abandoned her attempt at any lady-like composure and struggled against the restraints binding her wrists and ankles to her seat, wailing at the smooth, ungiving metal.

“Please hold still,” the voice advised dispassionately.

“No!” she cried, squirming in her seat. “I—surely I—”

“Please hold still.”

“What is this? Who are these people?”

“If you do not remain still you will be forcibly—”

“Where is my father? Where are we going?”

“—restrained,” the voice finished.

Emma felt an uncomfortable prick as a tiny silver needle punctured the white skin on the inside of her wrist, and her vision went black.

 

Spinning. Spinning. Spinning.

The Terratrak encircled Earth like a tight-fitting jeweled necklace, arcing across Eurasia and leaping into Alaska, draping down west North America and northern South America, spanning the mid-Atlantic and northern Africa to clasp the other end. The Trak had exactly one hundred individual tracks, the centum rings, each several hundred kilometers across and a perfect Mobius strip, with a magnetic track running along the entire edge. Each ring was then fused to the adjoining one, creating a perfect transportation network of modernized bullet trains travelling in and between the rings, the continuous edge of each Mobius strip eliminating any bottlenecks in the system.

Thousands of sleek white pods, like snow-white pigeons flocking to the natural lines of the magnetic field, coursed along the rings, held in place by the huge ferromagnetic braces alongside each lane. The center three lanes were trans-ring, travelling much faster than the outer lanes, which carried pods only within their centum ring.

Pod C73-V5-HT0312 carried its new arrivals within several hundred kilometers of their destination before two giant mechanical arms plucked if off lane five of the seventy-third centum ring and transferred it to the gleaming Histrium Technologies outpost of western United States. The pod doors aligned with the station’s, sliding open almost immediately. Released from her seat, Emma stood in the pod exit, gathering her skirts in her free hand, mouth agape.

 

The doctor laughed, fidgeting with the volume controls on his tablet. “No, of course you won’t die, not at all . . . Your device is functioning perfectly, Ms. Zaveri, as it always has,” he said. “No reason at all to be concerned. Besides, when was the last time someone died of anaerobic tendencies?”

Lina Zaveri stared at the sterile white of the ceiling, feeling a tingling spread through her chest as her med device began to whir back to life. She sighed in annoyance.

“You tell me, Doctor,” Lina replied, spitting out his title like it was an insult.

He paused uncomfortably. “Decades, I am sure. Even when the earliest models malfunctioned it was usually because of the battery used, since artificial heavy-atom elements were only stabilized enough to implant in someone’s chest in the early twenty-second century . . . Your Ununtrium battery, having sustained the device for nearly ten years, will undoubtedly not need replacing for at least another five.”

Lina felt the tingling spread down her arms, seeping into her fingertips.

“Reassuring,” she snorted.

“Either way,” he continued, “I appreciate your concerns, and your prudence in returning for a check-up, it has always been a pleasure to have the Zaveris here at . . .”

Lina closed her eyes and ignored his usual discourse of appreciation.

“ . . . still, I would advise that you check the battery levels regularly, especially if you are particularly active.”

She slowly sat up and brushed long, dark hair over her shoulder. “Thank you doctor. I have another engagement today, if you wouldn’t mind releasing me. I’m sure you are a busy man as well.” She raised an eyebrow pointedly, nodding at the tablet in his hands, which had kept up an incessant stream of chirping notifications throughout the visit until the doctor had silenced it.

“Ah, well. As you wish, Ms. Zaveri. You have transportation from the Center, I’m sure?”

Lina nodded. “I’ll have the front desk call my car.”

As soon as the doctor left she slipped into her clothes, wincing as she pulled her shirt over the battery, a flat disk attached to the skin over her left rib. She checked her reflection in the opaque screen embedded in the wall. Her shirt covered it. Nothing noticeable.

Her car was waiting out front. She climbed in and then leaned towards the dashboard.

“Computer, take me to the Histrium Tech ring station,” she commanded.

“Received,” it answered. “We will arrive in an estimated thirteen minutes.”

“That will be all.”

Lina pulled the safety belt across her lap as the car glided away from the hospital doors and started towards the Ring city throughway. The tickle in her chest was almost imperceptible. She sank into the reclining seat, asleep within seconds.

 

Spinning. Spinning. Spinning.

Under her left lung, connected to her stomach, the device that had been with Lina since she was a young girl began working faster, faster, to compensate for her jaunt through the long hospital halls. Like a miniscule nuclear reaction chamber embedded in her chest, molecules sped around the outer circle of the device in order to achieve the required precision for the reaction that is second nature to cells. It absorbed the oxygen molecules from her lungs and the glucose being broken down in her stomach. The decay of the rare radioactive element Ununtrium contained in a battery on her chest powered the reaction mimicking the respiration of ordinary cells, which would normally take the sugar molecules and oxidize them into ATP for muscle contraction. The whirring little device replaced her mitochondria, powering all aerobic activity fed by inhaled oxygen. Without it, her muscular activity reverted to the anaerobic stage, operating without oxygen like the end of a 100-meter dash, which the body can only maintain for a minute or two at the most.

 

Emma very nearly staggered into the station, thoroughly awed. She drew herself up to her full height, closed her gaping mouth, and surveyed the arched glass ceiling and low wall separating the unloading zone from reception. The rest of the shuttle occupants began to file out behind her, with a range of reactions.

A young, coquettish-looking girl—Dolores Haze—wandered over to an oddly waxy potted plant. Holden Caulfield slouched off the shuttle and meandered towards a lighted exit before two uniformed men blocked the door. A shabbily dressed man with shadows under his dark eyes—Raskolnikov—was studying the sign that read HISTRIUM TECHNOLOGIES WELCOMES YOU, in curiously illuminated letters. Emma’s gaze shifted to the commanding figure of Jay Gatsby, who strode up to a desk by the low wall and demanded, “Who is in charge in this establishment?”

Emma frowned. She caught the gaze of a pale young woman standing behind the barrier, who smiled coyly with scarlet lips and jerked her chin up to motion her closer. Emma narrowed her eyes indignantly and looked for somewhere else to turn, but uniformed employees with HISTRIUM TECHNOLOGIES emblazoned on their jackets had already begun attaching themselves to the men and women filing off the shuttle, escorting them to the other side of the room.

Emma approached a gap in the wall and walked towards the young woman who was, rather indecently, draped over the barrier.

“And you must be Miss Emma Woodhouse, am I right?” the woman drawled.

“Excuse me, but I believe we haven’t—”

“Quite the motley assort, coming in today. Regular library come to life.”

“I don’t believe I know—”

“Oh don’t bother,” Lina said with a biting laugh. “Let’s go to the car.”

“The what?”

 

Lina dragged her through the wide glass doors of the station and across a sidewalk embedded with glowing yellow arrows blinking towards the pick-up lane. The massive, lit expanse of the centum ring behind them bulwarked the descending night.

“Too bad you couldn’t see it by day,” Lina said, flicking a hand towards the lights of the Ring city.

Emma gasped at the lit grid rolling away at their feet in every direction. “Is this London?”

“’Course not!” Lina chuckled as they approached the car.

Impossibly sleek and low, it gleamed out of the dark like liquid mercury. The metal curved over the wheels as cold, dark water flows over river rocks. Lina moved around the stunned and immobilized Emma to open the passenger door. Emma jumped as Lina grabbed her forearm firmly and steered her onto the smooth black leather seat. A strap slid over her waist mechanically and the door locked with a soft click.

Lina sank into the driver’s seat, which swiveled towards the dashboard automatically after registering her weight.

“Computer,” she commanded, staring straight ahead. “Let me drive.”

“Who are you talking . . .” Emma stopped abruptly as the same silky-smooth voice from the shuttle replied,

“Manual control enabled. Would you like directions?”

“No, that will be all,” Lina answered. The display dimmed.

Emma froze and clutched the sides of her seat as the car glided forward soundlessly, as if the road, not the car, was moving.

Lina laughed again, her red lips looking almost black in the semi-darkness of the interior. “Amazed, are you?” she said to Emma, who simply gaped as the blue-white lights on either side of the highway glinted past.

She couldn’t tear her eyes away. “I—I . . . where are the horses?”

Lina snickered. “Long gone. This carriage is hydrogen fuel cell powered. And the computer—well, centuries ahead of your time, darlin’.”

Emma was silent as the lights blurring by dwindled, until they gave way completely to dark hills. “Where,” she ventured, “are we going?”

“Jackson, Wyoming,” Lina replied with mock grandeur. Emma looked blank. “Though I suppose you won’t know it as Jackson Hole, either, since it was incorporated after you lived.”

“After I lived?” Emma asked.

“Well, sure,” Lina replied.

Emma sighed and stared out the window. The car swerved around a corner and suddenly they were enveloped by high canyon walls blanketed by stands of bristling trees. She peered down as the road passed seamlessly over a river, roiling darkly below. They moved like a silver bullet, so fast that no sooner had she caught sight of a signpost or darkly outlined tree, it was snatched away, miles behind them. Emma’s eyes slid closed and she fell asleep against the cold window.

 

“Where are you parents?” Emma asked plaintively the next morning.

Lina snorted, an ugly sound completely at odds with the graceful elegance of her charcoal-gray clothes and long, heeled legs striding slowly down the sidewalk. Emma’s own legendary grace was diminished by her skittishness any time a silent car slid past or the streetlights blinked to a new color. Lina caught the wide, swept streets reflected in Emma’s frightened blue eyes, taking a perverse pleasure from her own complete ease in roaming the streets alone, broad daylight though it was.

“My parents? You wouldn’t believe me even if I told you,” Lina sneered back after a pause, smiling grimly at the thought of Lunar Surface Station Five and its newest visitors.

“Surely they wouldn’t leave you all alone?”

“Oh, surely they would.” Lina imitated Emma’s British accent and pulled her across the street into the town square. “I’m fine without them.”

“It hardly seems decent for a young—”

“Look, you’re here, aren’t you? To be my au pair, or companion, or teacher, or whatever the heck it is—” Lina fell silent as another walking historical figure strolled past, lace-fringed arm wrapped around an older woman in a tight synthetic suit.

“A teacher?” Emma asked. “Here, in your world—what would I be able to teach you?” She glanced up as Lina tugged her under the mossy antler arch and onto the immaculately trimmed grass of the square proper.

“Exactly. Nothing.” Lina crossed the lawn to a massive stump, and after brushing it off, sat on the edge. “Sit.”

Emma huffed. “I don’t feel it would be proper of—”

“Oh, shut it. If they hope you’ll teach me decency then they’ll be sorely disappointed. I’m going to explain this to you.”

Emma perched on the edge of the stump and folded her hands delicately in her lap, as if afraid she would touch the faded tree rings and they would ripple out to reach Lina’s own pale hand. The wood was smoothed from age, wide enough to function as a squat table.

Lina gestured to a graying woman in an old flower-print dress tut-tutting over a young, stricken-looking mother and her linen-clad son. “See? She—the older one—looks a bit out of place, wouldn’t you say? The picture of old feminine domesticity. Muslin dress, actual leather shoes. Holding all the ancient matriarchal wisdom. You know her?”

Emma shook her head, gazing intently at the woman. Wisps of silvery hair had escaped her bun and fallen over kind eyes.

“’Course not. She’s after your time, by a few decades. But that’s Clarissa Dalloway, in the flesh. Revived to bring back all these positively fantastic ideas about home and hearth and fresh flowers on the mantle. But no one even has mantles any more!” Lina kicked at the air, as if punctuating the statement.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t follow,” Emma said. “Who is she?”

“She’s the protagonist from Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway.”

“But that’s absurd!”

“Funny you think so. It is kind of crazy, when you think about it. Book characters brought to life. But they couldn’t just rip historical figures right out of their place in the past, now could they? That would be like raping history or something. But books, well, their copyrights expired hundreds of years ago . . . and book characters, hey; they’re only the produce of minds. So who cares, right? They don’t really have a place in history, so no harm done bringing them to the future.”

“But that . . . why?” Emma faltered.

“To guide us, teach us, or something like that. A Buddha in your back pocket. Gandalf in your garden. Sherlock saves the day again! I must say Jane Austen is a favorite.” She winked at Emma. “Probably doesn’t mean anything to you. But some people will pay an awful lot of money to bring a few pages back to life.”

Lina’s watch chimed with a red light. She swiped the display to silence it. A thin sheen of sweat had broken out over her forehead as they continued their stroll through downtown Jackson.

“Yep, got it!” she cried. Emma glanced at her with delicately raised eyebrows.

“Yes?”

“Bikes! They just came out in the early eighteen hundreds, didn’t they? You probably wouldn’t have seen one . . . but whatever. I’ll teach you how to bike, and that will be one technology mastered.” Lina’s piercing eyes glowed almost malevolently. Emma looked skeptical.

Half an hour later they were wheeling a pair of rented bikes down the bike path. After another hour Emma tottered after Lina, who pedaled around a shaded corner of path and into a small, empty park. Lina slowed and stepped off her bike, leaning it up against a park bench. She gasped and clutched at the bench.

“I—I—look!” Emma cried, rounding the corner. “I—I can fly!”

Spinning. Spinning. Spinning.

Lina blinked, still leaning heavily on the wood. Her watch screen burned red. The wheels of the bike spun around and around, faster and faster. Lina clung to the bench panting, her eyes transfixed.

“I can—oh!” With barely a sound, the front tire hit a gnarled root pressing from under the asphalt and deflected to the left with a sharp yank of the handlebars. Emma had only cried out one syllable of unpleasant surprise before the bike dumped her onto the path with a shrug and lay in a metal-limbed heap. Her head hit the asphalt with a dull thwack and she was silent.

Closing her eyes, Lina laughed breathlessly. Then she pushed herself up and reeled towards Emma’s prone body.

“Ironic, isn’t it,” she said, as she ripped open the front of Emma’s blouse, “that it was nineteenth century technology that killed a piece of work like you.”

And then she reached into Emma’s metal chest and pulled out her battery.

 

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