The Wager

“Hey, Sean!” Saoirse Murphy slid three glasses down the bar to thirsty patrons, then turned to look again for that damned brother of hers. It was only mid-afternoon, but the Husky Lady was packed, a mixture of their usual patrons and Lucky Finnegan’s airship crew, who had adopted the dockside tavern as their refuge from shipboard work.

“Sean, blast ya! We need another keg of stout!”

“Olof will carry keg!” The booming voice did not actually propel Saoirse backwards, but she grabbed the edge of the bar, just in case. The massive Kreigerian loomed into sight, smiling broadly under his waxed and curled blonde mustache. “Olof will carry two kegs!”

“No, that’s…”

Olaf’s shaved head gleamed. “Two in each arm! Four kegs! Point Olof toward cellar, tiny barlady!”

“I’m not tiny! An’ my lazy brother’ll get…” Saoirse finally spotted Sean’s shock of red hair through the crowd. He was leaning against a wall, chatting up a raven-haired Castillian sky-sailor. The lass looked more amused than impressed, but Sean showed no sign of moving.

“Feck,” muttered Saoirse. “Grab the kegs, Olaf.” She caught the attention of a barmaid’ near the back stairs, pointed to Olof and mimed working a key. “Molly’ll unlock the cellar for ya. Don’t lift the door off the hinges before she gets there!”

“Haha! Tiny barlady is funny!” The giant drifted away through the crowd like a cheerful iceberg, and vanished down the back stairs.

Now that she no longer needed him, Saoirse’s twin brother appeared at her side. “Her name’s Alita,” Sean announced with a grin. “I think she fancies me!” He pointed out the laughing Castillian, who now stood among a knot of competitors at the dartboard, defending a title she had earned two nights ago and never since relinquished.

“Not blind enough to fancy your ugly mug, or she wouldn’t be cleaning up at darts! Now cover Molly’s tables while she’s off doin’ your work, or we’ll have a bloody riot here!”

Sean made a creatively rude gesture before grabbing a tray of glasses and heading off through the crowd.

A minute or two later, Olof lumbered back into sight with a keg balanced on each shoulder. Saoirse helped lower them into place behind the bar. She tapped the first, and pulled two pints for Olof; the drinks looked like shot glasses in his oversized hands. A couple of grouchy regulars glowered after him, once he was a safe distance off. Bad enough that their bar had been swarmed with strange faces, but that one’s booming Kreigerian accent added insult to injury.

A narrow shaft of afternoon sunlight fell across the bar as the street door opened. The two ill-tempered regulars turned their heads in unison, then bristled at what they saw. Real trouble this time? Saoirse’s hand closed around the heavy axehandle stashed beneath the bar. She kept the bludgeon low and out of sight as she turned toward the door…then relaxed into a grin.

“Ludwig!” she called out cheerfully. “You look like you’ve been dragged arseways through the Pit!” Fading, yellow and purple bruises covered the Kreigerian doctor’s face. A split lip and a cut under his eye were half-healed, as though the blows had been struck a week or two before. But she had seen Dok Krauss patch up fighting lads more than once back in Rottingen, and she knew how fast those concoctions of his did their job. He could have taken that beating just last night, for all she knew.

“Hello, Saoirse. A small misunderstanding among friends,” was Krauss’s only explanation.

“‘Course it was, luv. Since when have you got enemies?” Saoirse topped off a short glass of amber fluid, poured another for herself. “Shot of painkiller. Drink up.”

Krauss could not quite hide the grimace as he swallowed the Celden whiskey. He had never actually liked the stuff, Saorise knew. In here, though, he never drank anything else. Old time’s sake and all.

The two regulars were still staring sullenly. “What’s with the sour faces, lads?” Sean Murphy chided as he hurried past them. “You both remember the Dok!” He reached the bar and embraced Krauss warmly, then pulled back and squinted up at the taller man’s face. “You look like you’ve been drug arseways through…”

“I told him that already!”

“How have you been, Sean? It is always good to see you both,” the doctor said earnestly.

Sean set a third glass beside the two empty ones on the bar, and filled them from the same bottle Saoirse had poured from. Ludwig grimaced once more as he swallowed his.

“Good to see you too, Ludwig,” said Saoirse, “but didja really have to send every last shipmate of yours to this bar?”

“I mentioned the place to Olof,” answered Krauss mildly. “The others may have been caught in his gravitational pull.”

“That’s a university man’s joke, right? Just nudge me at the part where we laugh.”

“I know; it’s outlandish of me to imagine you’ve read a book,” he said dryly. “Take care of your patrons, Saoirse. I’m in no rush.”

For the next hour, the doctor sat alone with his thoughts, a half-empty glass of whiskey at his elbow. When the rush had died down a bit, and Tam O’Leary had shown up to share the load with Molly, the twins finally had a chance to step away from the taps and join Krauss at the relatively quiet end of the bar.

“Did any of the crew mention that we are bound for Verne, for the World’s Fair?” asked Krauss.

“We figured you wouldn’t miss it,” answered Saoirse. “We wrote up some dispatches for Wee Dan, if you don’t mind carrying ‘em.”

Krauss nodded, then glanced about for unwanted listeners. “I have something for you as well.” He leaned to one side and reached into a pocket of his coat, neatly folded on the next barstool. A leather pouch clinked metallically as he handed it across the bar. “The Brotherhood’s share of our latest commission.”

Saoirse bit her lip. “You don’t have to keep bringing us money, Ludwig. There are no debts between us.”

“On the contrary; I am in your debt until the day I die,” he answered. “But these funds have nothing to do with that. I count it as an investment, toward a better world for Leah to awaken to.”

Saoirse glanced toward Sean. Her brother was no longer smiling; her own expression must be just as grim. “So you’re still keeping the…” Her voice trailed off, but she traced a shape in the air: a cylinder a bit bigger than her own head.

Krauss looked taken aback at the question. “Of course I am. Leah is in excellent health, despite her injuries. I would have told you had anything…”

“It’s been eight years, Ludwig,” said Sean flatly.

“Scarcely seven and a half. It will be eight this winter. And for most of that time, I was prevented from working at all.” Saoirse raised an eyebrow. It was the closest she had ever heard Ludwig come to speaking of the Imperial prison where he’d landed after the shite hit the fan in Rottingen.

Krauss’s ice-blue eyes gleamed intently as he leaned toward them. “We are getting closer. The clone lines still have their glitches, I grant you, but with the things we’ll learn in Verne, I am certain…

“You were ‘certain’, eight years ago.” Sean’s tone was uncompromising, almost dangerous. “You said you knew a way to fix her.”

Saoirse spoke up, before either man could speak words that could not be unsaid. “You’re not the only one who loved her, Ludwig. But you might be the only one who refuses to mourn.”

“Mourn? Leah is not dead!” For a moment, anger and betrayal were plain on the doctor’s battered face…but with visible effort, he pushed them back. When he spoke again, his tone was level and precise. “Leah does not need tears, Saoirse. She needs results. We are nearly there.”

“And if what she needs is peace?” shot back Sean. Saoirse placed a cautioning hand on her brother’s arm, but he brushed it aside and pressed on. “If she really is still alive in there, then dragging out her life all these years ain’t my feckin’ idea of mercy. It’s torture.”

With a blur of motion Krauss’s fist shot across the bar. Sean’s head rocked back and he started to fall, but wrenched himself hard upright, throwing a left jab that split open the last patch of unbruised skin on the doctor’s face. Sean rolled with Krauss’s next punch so that it barely grazed him, then threw himself across the bar to grapple, denying the taller man the advantage of reach. Down the bar, the two glowering regulars were on their feet now, staggering to Sean’s aid as fast as inebriation allowed.

WHAM! Saoirse brought her axehandle down on the bar a whisker’s breadth from the struggling men. They both froze at the sound, as Sean’s would-be rescuers also managed a wobbly halt. Saoirse lifted the handle, let it rest against her shoulder. “Any fightin’ in my place,” she announced in a loud, cheerful tone, “and I get to join the fun.” She cast a warning look about the crowd who had been closing in on the fray before turning to Sean and Krauss. “You boys got that?”

They each murmured assent as they broke their grapple and took a careful, mutual step back from one another. Most of the patrons turned back to their drinks, but Saoirse and her brother were not alone behind the bar. Somehow, the dusky Castillian sky-sailor was standing a step off Sean’s right shoulder, a sap held ready in her hand. Saoirse had never seen her arrive.

“Everything all right, Doc?” she asked, unfazed by the impact that had silenced most of the bar.

“We are fine, Lieutenant Esparza,” said Krauss after a moment or two. “A misunderstanding between friends.”

“And what in the Pit are you doing behind my bar?” Saoirse growled, her challenging tone not quite untouched by amusement.

“Wrong turn looking for the head,” the woman answered casually, but stood no less alert. “I’d learn to navigate, but I might put Prestley out of a job.”

Saoirse rolled her eyes. “You heard the Dok. Misunderstanding. Friends. So git.”

The Castillian waited for a confirming nod from Krauss before flashing the twins a brilliant smile. “Aye aye,” she said, as the sap vanished somewhere in the folds of her clothing. She vaulted easily back over the bar and headed for the dartboard. “Ai, capullo! Don’t you sneak off like that! I’m up sixteen points!”

Sean watched her go with frank admiration. “I like that lass.”

“Another two shakes,” Saoirse rejoined, “and she woulda thumped your thick skull.”

Sean gave a dismissive wave. “Lots of people wanna do that. Don’t mean we’re enemies or nothing.” He looked across the bar. “Does it, Krauss?”

Much of the anger and some of the mad certainty had left Krauss’s expression, leaving only weariness. He sighed, pressed his fingers against his temples, then looked Sean in the eye. “Any man who would take a punch speaking up for Leah, is a friend for life.”

“To be fair now, it ain’t like it was much of a punch,” answered Sean, working his bruised jaw experimentally. “What was that, some kind of prissy Officer’s Club fisticuffs? I thought we’d taught you to handle a tavern brawl.”

“Eejits, both of ye.” Saoirse relaxed, and reached for the bottle to pour another round. “To friends, family, and feckin’ fools. Why in the Pit are they always the same damned people?”

After all three had swallowed, it was Saoirse who broke the silence again. “Ludwig? What’s it like for her in there? Honestly.”

“Honestly…” Krauss looked for a while into his half-full glass. “None of us know.”

“My belief,” he continued quickly, before Sean could work up a fresh head of steam, “is that Leah sleeps peacefully. If she is aware of her existence at all, it is as one in a deep dream. I do not believe she feels the full weight of the passage of time.”

Krauss looked Sean in the eye again before admitting, “I could be wrong. Elizabeth Chesterfield disagrees, for instance.”

Who? Saoirse gave her brother a questioning glance, and Sean held two fingers up near his eye, very close together. Ah, right. Tiny glasses.

Krauss was still speaking, “Fraulein Chesterfield thinks that Leah can hear everything we say. That she speaks to us in turn, through variations in fluid uptake and alchemical signals, if only we could learn to read them.”

Sean grunted skeptically. “Old Gammer Nitts talks the same way. With her, it’s bird guts and tea leaves.”

“I concur, Sean. The idea strikes me as improbable.”

For a while, no one spoke. Finally Saoirse broke the silence. “You’ll be wantin’ that package for Wee Dan.”

“If you still wish me to carry it.”

She snorted as she handed across the packet of papers. “Don’t be daft, Ludwig. We wouldn’t be fightin’ ya if we didn’t care.”

The papers vanished into one of the voluminous pockets of Krauss’s coat. “Sean, may I treat that bruise for you?”

“Are ya coddin’ me?” Sean drew back, throwing a defensive hand over the welt on his jaw. “This is my ticket to free drinks all week! Wait till the lads hear I tangled with an Imperial officer!”

“You know I am no longer…”

Saoirse swatted him. “Let a fool dream.”

—————————————————————————

The Kestrel was a day away from departure as Krauss strode up the gangplank. Her canopy was half-inflated, with crewmen and women crawling over its expanse and marking leaks or damage. Others worked to stow cargo, or to ready the weapons, a necessity in unstable times.

As Krauss passed among them, the bruises on his face, old and new, provoked more than one double-take. Those who had been present at the Husky Lady whispered to those who had not. Krauss gathered his dignity about him like a cloak, nodding to crewmates as he began evening medical rounds.

Herr Lubsang’s concussion still bore watching, as did the burns several others had suffered in the clash off the shore of La Croix. There were the usual array of hangovers and eel-borne illnesses that accompanied shore leave in Ostley. Only once all patients were attended to, did Krauss retreat to the cramped belowdecks space that served as laboratory to the medical and scientific crew. Three intricate locks turned smoothly in response to his keys, and he slipped through the door.

The lab was — at first glance — empty of human habitation. Rats and things that were not quite rats chittered and burbled in their cages, but Krauss ignored their sounds; he was listening for subtler ones. The ticking of clockwork-driven pumps, the steady drip of auto-titrators, the near-inaudible creak of pressure differentials across membranes. He knew them like he knew his own heartbeat, and a fraction of the tension left him once he assured himself that they were all in place.

Locking the door behind him, Krauss maneuvered through the narrow space between the cages and the lab bench, until the curve of the ship’s hull narrowed the room to a point. A gleaming silver canister held pride of place there, ringed by pumps and hydraulic tubing. A red-and-gold pirate’s tricorne perched incongruously atop the cylinder, with a pair of Marloux-blue silk ribbons pinned to its brim, each bearing a silver star. Ludwig smiled for the first time since stepping onboard as he placed a hand on the steel surface. “Hello, Love.”

He set the hat carefully aside, taking pains not to dislodge the ribbons, unscrewed the fasteners around the rim of the cylinder, and lifted its cover free. The shadowed interior was full of gently circulating, pale-green fluid. Beyond the currents and bubbles that churned near its surface, he could barely discern the grayish, convoluted shape that was her. Everything he had been able to save of her. Everything that was irreplaceable.

“Sean and Saoirse send warm regards,” he told her. “They want us to work faster so you can see them soon.” He drew a pipette of fluid from the canister, and titrated it drop by drop into a waiting test tube of blue-tinted gel. When the color faded to transparency on the seventh drop, he nodded in satisfaction, and penned a few numbers in a scuffed and dogeared leather logbook. “Your metabolic markers look superb.”

For a half hour Ludwig ran further assays and recorded their results, flushed tubing and replaced filters, adjusted and calibrated the machinery that sustained Leah’s life. As he worked, he spoke to her about enzymatic activity and cell-line stability, shared plans for new experiments, speculated about tantalizing bioalchemical secrets that must lie hidden in the data.

In truth, as he had admitted to Saoirse, reason dictated that Leah could not hear him. Her neural function was intact, if imperceptibly slow — the alchemical markers would not lie! — but there were no sensory nerves to tell her of the world. Elizabeth Chesterfield dissented from this view, though, and Ludwig had been mistaken before.

Chesterfield’s Wager, Ludwig called the line of logic. If Leah could not sense their presence, but they acted as though she could, the error would cost no one a thing…save perhaps his own reputation for sanity, but that had been a lost cause for years. On the other hand, if Leah were conscious of those around her, and they acted as if she did not exist…such cruelty was unthinkable. However remote the odds, the only defensible course was to treat Leah as fully sentient and aware.

When he had done all he could to assure his wife’s health and comfort, he reached for the cap to the canister…then paused, and simply gazed into its depths, where Leah’s brain floated silently, suspended in the life-sustaining alchemical brew.

Ludwig closed his eyes, placed his forehead against the canister’s cold, smooth wall, and listened. Elizabeth claimed to hear emotion and intent in the drip of solutions, the burble of fluids in tubing, the occasional faint bloop of a rising bubble. Ludwig, while not quite willing to assume she was wrong — Chesterfield’s Wager is a versatile argument — had never claimed to share this insight. So he put the sounds of the machinery from his mind, along with the scurrying and chittering from the cages, the bustle of the Kestrel’s crew and the creak of her inflating canopy…and strained to hear what lay behind them. Moving through those three pounds of tissue were the thoughts and dreams of the woman he loved. The only thing that separated his mind from hers was a few centimeters of space…and what is space but a synapse? If he concentrated, willed galvano-alchemical continuity across that gap, it must be possible to feel the whisper of her mind, to touch her thoughts in return. He shut out the world, shut out everything but Leah, and listened.

Silence. He could not touch her. Those few centimeters may as well be the gulf between stars.

Was this Leah’s world now, always? A vast expanse of darkness, silence, isolation, with no way to know she had not been forgotten…

She can have no sense of time, the voice of reason insisted. Her neural processes are slowed to the minimum sustainable rate. To her, the years will have been a single, timeless moment.

Or have they been an eternity? Is she frightened? Lost? In pain?

Leah, what have I done to you?

A single tear dropped from the bridge of his nose and hit the regenerative fluid with a small plop. Ludwig snapped his eyes open and jerked his head away, catapulted back into reality. Sentiment was one thing, but excess salinity could do incalculable harm. His hands trembled as he replaced the screws around the canister’s circumference, and his mind writhed like a trapped serpent, recoiling from unacceptable lines of thought. Cognatogen. Now.

A hypodermic was in his hands; he filled it rapidly but meticulously from a vial of translucent blue fluid. With long-familiar motions he found a vein in his left arm, slid the needle into place, depressed the plunger. Then he closed his eyes and counted the seconds until the cool rush of clarity washed through his brain, annealing his disordered thoughts into crystalline threads of logic.

When Krauss opened his eyes, the room and everything in it seemed cast in sharper relief. Each instrument, each reagent, each caged rat hummed with potential, its place in the puzzle waiting only to be unlocked. Leah’s canister gleamed with a brushed metallic glow, a perfectly machined fortress shielding her from harm until she could rejoin the world.

“i apologize, love,” he told her. “A moment of irrationality. I am better, now.” He gave what he hoped would be a reassuring chuckle. “What does Saoirse put in those drinks?”

In truth, he chided himself severely, he had nearly panicked. Of the many things that would be of no help to Leah, panic was among the foremost. He lifted the lid of the canister carefully into place, threaded the fasteners closed. She will be safer that way.

He was tightening the last fastener when a key rattled in one of the door locks. Krauss had time to replace the pirate hat and step away from Leah’s canister before the third bolt slid back and the door opened.

“G-good evening.” A dark-haired, bespectacled young man poked his head through the door with an apologetic smile and looked around the small space, clearly expecting a second person. “Wh-wh-who were you t-talking to?”

“Merely thinking aloud, Herr Fartham.”

James Fartham looked puzzled, but tentatively stepped inside, followed by a more-solidly-built blonde man. “Some people might worry about that habit, Doctor Krauss.” Gordon Marwick smiled as he said the words, but his eyes were serious. He leaned across the lab bench to inspect the caged rodents. “Kappa-12 and 15 have died.”

“Recently, then,” answered Krauss. “Both were alive a quarter-hour ago.” Marwick checked the time on a worn, tin-clad pocketwatch, and made two entries on a sheet pinned up near the cages. “Survival time since removal from the growth medium…twenty-one and a half hours.”

Krauss watched him take an unmoving white-furred bundle from its cage and place it on a dissection tray. The Kappa clone line was among their most successful. Bilateral symmetry was an almost universal feature, and — compared to the early Epsilon specimens, for instance — a thoroughly reasonable number of limbs and eyes. On dissection, the internal organs were likely to be properly-formed as well, by every standard metric. But maddeningly, the cloned subjects always died quickly of catastrophic organ failure.

“I-I’ve h-had some thoughts on t-that,” spoke up James, as if reading Krauss’s mind. “T-the enzymatic cascade we t-talked about.” Krauss lifted an eyebrow with interest, and behind his spectacles, James’s green eyes glittered at the recognition. “I’ll g-g-get my n-notes.”

The moment James had ducked out the door, Gordon turned toward Krauss and inspected his face with a clinical eye. He did not comment on the fresh bruises among the half-healed ones; he was examining the pupils instead. “Cognatogen.” It was not a question.

“Twenty centigrams, Doctor Marwick,” stated Krauss. “Within the accepted dosage range.”

“That is contested. And you took twenty this morning.”

“I shall get some extra sleep tonight to metabolize it.”

The younger doctor gave an exasperated sigh. “I know you understand the risks, but have you considered the impact on James? It’s been scarcely half a year since his own detoxi…” There was a rapid knock at the door and James slipped back into the room, grinning and clutching a sheaf of papers. Gordon gave Krauss a hard look — this is not over — and turned back to the lab bench, while James headed for a slate chalk board on the port wall.

The board was already densely packed with alchemical notation. James reached up, erased a chalked arrow, and replaced it with a branching curve. “S-suppose the inhibitory p-protein actually binds at two d-distinct s-s-sites, but one of them c-c-competes with the m-mu catalyst at s-strong acidity…”

Over the next hour, Marwick prised data from the tissues of the short-lived rat, while James and Krauss filled the slate board with an expanding network of alchemical pathways ringed with scribbled questions and calculations. Krauss glanced reflexively toward Leah’s canister whenever a point seemed likely to be of particular interest to her, but until the others knew the full intent of this project, he could not include her in the conversation.

Rapid footsteps approached and stopped outside the door. “Is anyone in there? My hands are full; I can’t reach my keys.” Gordon stood and unlocked the door, and a small, pale-skinned woman slipped inside, balancing a stack of books with a single sealed jar on top, wedged under her chin for stability. “You would scarcely believe the procurement red tape at the University,” she exclaimed. “All for rats! In our day, it was easier to get hold of…” She trailed off, wrinkling her nose at a memory…or, perhaps, at the combined smells of rodents’ musk, chalk dust, perspiration, and alchemical reagents that filled the cramped space. Gordon reached over and switched up the gearing on the ventilation fan.

“Were you able to obtain any animals at all?” Krauss noted the lack of squeaking cages in her cargo.

Elizabeth snorted at his lack of faith. “A man from the University will deliver the rats in the morning, along with all the reagents we listed.” She began reorganizing the packed shelves that constituted their library, making space for the new books she had bought. “Except for the glycerol nitrates. It seems that every alchemy supply house in the city is out of them.”

“Then w-what is in the b-bottle?” asked James.

Elizabeth grinned brightly. “Pickled eels! I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.” She set the jar on the bench and slid into the narrow space opposite Gordon, where she selected a scalpel and set to work disassembling the second rat.

Another hour’s work, and the symbols on the board had begun to swim and double in Krauss’s vision. The cognatogen had worn off by now, and fatigue from the day’s misadventures was taking its toll. “Remember that you intended to get some sleep tonight, Doctor,” Gordon reminded him, as he labeled the last of the tissue samples he and Elizabeth had preserved. “You look as if you could use it.”

“Of course,” answered Krauss absently. “You go ahead; I shall finish shutting down the lab for the night.” Marwick looked ready to object, but Elizabeth intervened. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t stay up till dawn working,” she promised.

Grudgingly, Gordon headed out the door, James still chattering at his sides about reaction kinetics and feedback tipping points. “You look well tonight,” Elizabeth said brightly, once the door closed behind them.

“That is difficult to believe, Fraulein,” Krauss began…but Elizabeth was speaking to Leah. She smiled as she thumbed through the scuffed logbook where Ludwig had recorded the metabolic assays. “And you’ve entirely reversed that trend toward alkalinity!” Her tone left no doubt at her conclusion: Leah had altered her own brain alchemy by sheer brilliance and force of will.

Ludwig smiled as he walked over to join the two women. He placed a hand on the cylinder and stood with them companionable silence, as Elizabeth adjusted her glasses and studied the diagrams on the far wall. She took an automatic half-step sideways so as not to block Leah’s view of the board. “Do you think James has cracked the problem?”

She was clearly addressing them both, so Ludwig thought carefully about how Leah might respond. Even in her present silence, he found her perspective an invaluable aid…and, he realized, she would raise objections he could not ignore. “Herr Fartham’s model is ingenious, but it cannot be the entire story,” he admitted after a time. “It doesn’t explain the rapid demyelination we’ve seen, or the abrupt damping of the inflammatory response. Still, even a partial answer is a major step forward.”

“When the new lab stock arrive tomorrow, we can learn more,” nodded Elizabeth. She tried to stifle a yawn, but failed. “I ought to get a bit of sleep before morning. You promised to do the same, remember.” When Krauss hesitated, she turned to a higher authority. “Leah, you’ll remind him?”

After Elizabeth had said her farewells to them both and retired off to her own quarters, Krauss unfolded a narrow cot from beneath the lab bench, extinguished the overhead lantern, and stretched out to claim what sleep he could spare the time for. Even the rats had quieted for the night, but Leah’s clockwork pumps whirred and ticked steadily in the darkness. “Courage,” he told her quietly. “You are never forgotten.” The rhythm of the support machines did not change.

“Dream well, love,” Ludwig whispered. “We are coming to bring you home.”

The Wager

World of Gears PabloIchiban Krauss