Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 46
The Gaunt of Dennis Mallory
by Scott M. Roberts
by Nathaniel Lee
The Machine in My Mind
by James Maxey
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
Imitation of self
by Chris Bellamy
Vintage Fiction
The Angelus Guns
by Max Gladstone

Last Night at the Café Renaissance
    by D. Thomas Minton

Last Night at the Café Renaissance
Artwork by Larry Blamire

The second time I met Lucic, he was a chef.

He looked down at me, snowy flakes of ash from the persistent smoke settling on his shoulders. "What else do you have to do with your life?" he asked.

I pulled the tatters of my military jacket around my neck. The hollow pipes that are my legs burned against the flesh of my hips.

"I want you to run my floor," Lucic said, "be my maitre d'." He kept his hands in his pockets -- good thing. The sight of them, pink and soft, might have driven me to violence.

"Why should I help you?" I asked.

"Because you have skills I need," he said.

Machine gun fire rattled briefly in the distance. Lucic and I craned our heads into the following silence, wondering when the battle would again resume in earnest.

After a time, Lucic cleared his throat. I could not tell if it was because of the smoke or just to jar me back to the present. "I need people like you --"

"Half-men, you mean." I tapped my metal fingers on my threadbare trousers. The metal beneath rang hollowly.

Lucic's jaw twitched. He hated the name half-men, but I found it fitting, considering how people like me were treated.

"You're a leader, Bolduc, or at least you were. The others will respect you."

I looked at anything but his face -- the concrete rubble, the trees like driftwood, the grey, grey sky. The old timers talked about a world with color, but the only color I'd ever seen was red.

Lucic squatted next to me. His presence demanded my attention. "And I know you haven't given up on being human."

Before we open, Lucic reminds us all of our place. "You are restaurateurs, now," he says to the gathered half-men. "Whatever your thoughts about the Governor, put them aside."

One of the half-men, Paget, grumbles, but quickly falls silent when no one else joins him.

The Governor has grown fat on the blood of men like us. He sends us off to fight for his authority in exchange for the illusion of prosperity for the families we leave behind. When we come home broken, we are tossed aside like last year's toys.

That is all Lucic says. He expects it to be enough, and I trust his instincts. The staff breaks apart then, scattering into the kitchen and up into the rafters to make preparations.

Lucic opened his restaurant in the husk of a cathedral whose roof had been burned off long ago by incendiaries, leaving only the charred bones of thick timber crossbeams. On any given night, an observer -- perhaps a forgotten military man -- spying through a hole in the wall of the Café would have seen a half-dozen tables, clothed in white like marbles of moonlight, and the crimson sky reflected in the curves of spoons and the flats of knives. Around each table, dressed in their finest suits and gowns, men and women would sit savoring an aromatic daube with roots or the cef ravioli painstakingly crimped by kitchen hands. Occasionally, their eyes would turn upward toward the night sky, reddish-hued from the fires, but it's not the stars they sought.

The magic of the Café Renaissance wasn't in the arrangement of the tables, or the shine of the silver or crystal. It was in the food and the service. If our observer -- perhaps an orphan girl, her face disfigured by burn scars -- kept her eyes on the ground, she might draw the erroneous conclusion that Lucic had no serving staff. But his staff worked the floor without ever touching it. They worked it suspended from wires and pulleys and runners that allowed them to glide above the tables, trays in hand, as they dove like dirigibles on bombing runs, to deliver sweet carrot consommé or caramelized passerine yolks.

All of Lucic's staff were half-men, for whole-men were unavailable for something as frivolous as a restaurant. Even with this reality, I suspected Lucic always wanted people like me to work his Café. We were, after all and in a sense, his children, cursed and inadequate, with clumsy limbs that were inferior to those of flesh. Yet on the wires and unencumbered by our legs, we possessed the grace of hummingbirds. As we soared above them, the men and women below did not see half-men, but unexpected beauty.

The Governor arrives with his wife on his arm and an entourage of sycophants in his wake. I am polite, as much as it pains me. I seat them at a table in the center of the room.

"How can he sit and drink and eat," I say to Lucic later, "while boys die in the mud outside the City." I think, but do not say: he is a ghoul, feeding on the dead.

An explosion rattles the hanging pots. That incendiary was closer than the others. An errant bomb or a shift in the attack, I wonder. I can see in Lucic's face that he wonders the same.

"Appearances," Lucic says. "Leadership is about appearances, especially when leadership is tenuous."

From my time on the front, I know this is true, but I refuse to concede. The Governor is the one who stopped the veteran ration for half-men. He is the one who turned us out of the infirmaries. He is the one who took the other half of our humanity.

Lucic holds up a flaccid strip of grey flesh capped with a white almond-shaped shell. With the help of the other staff, and at Lucic's request, I had fished the gooseneck barnacles from debris in the harbor several days ago. "No one thinks to eat a barnacle," Lucic says. "It grows in the filth and slime. It looks wholly inedible, but tonight it will be a delicacy to be worshipped."

Lucic returns to his labor, his point made.

On the counter next to him is a bucket. Inside several discarded barnacles cling to bits of refuse. Sometimes a barnacle is simply a barnacle, and no amount of culinary magic can make it anything more.

I bounce my body lightly and the rapeller in the rafters spins, launching me up into the night. Tilting my weight to the right, the pulley system shifts, and kitchen falls away as I slide out into the dining area. Paget pivots to avoid me, shooting past in the near dark. The harness bolts tug at my hips as I loop to the left to avoid Marc-Andre. He slides by, silent as a ghost, a laden tray in his left hand.

Explosions flash across the sky in rapid succession. The building shakes.

For a moment, the diners pause. Each table is encased in its own droplet of candlelight. In the upturned faces, I see concern, but also resignation. No place is safe in the City. They think: if I am to die, then why not here, with a good meal in my belly.

I sweep downward toward the Governor's table. They have finished their course and sit conversing as they await the next. I pull the wires and slow to a stop above them, where they do not see me.

"The half-men are a danger," say one of the Governor's sycophants. They all look the same to me: plump and clueless. "The metal affects their brains and corrupts their moral capacity. That is what happened in Avignon, when the half-men rose up."

"They were no match for Avignon's army," says a second.

The first snorts. "Of course not. They are not men any longer."

"Where is your compassion?" asks the Governor. "They do not have metal hearts, unlike you perhaps." This draws snickers from the others.

"Now is not the time to grow soft," says a third sycophant.

The Governor's brow crinkles. "What have we become when compassion for our fellow man is weakness?"

"The world has no room for compassion," says the first sycophant. "Do you think our enemies will show us compassion? Send the half-men to the front, all of them, and let them prove --"

The Governor raises a hand, and the conversation halts.

I had not noticed the bombs going quiet. Now my gut constricts.

The Governor's wife turns her face up to the sky. She does not seem to see me, although she looks straight at me.

The sycophants look from one to the other, confused by the sudden quiet.

I drop down and pull to a stop at the Governor's side.

The Governor's face has blanched pale as a parsnip, and I realize he knows.

Before I can speak the door to the dining hall bursts open and soldiers flood across the floor, leveling bayonets and rifle muzzles at diners as they go. A man stands and reaches inside his coat. Pop! Pop! He falls, two holes neatly pushed through his forehead.

A woman screams. It takes me a moment to realize it is the Governor's wife.

Before I can bounce my wire, a ring of guns surrounds us.

The Governor raises his hands to show they are empty and places them, palms up, on the table in front of him. The sycophants do the same.

I could have pulled my wires. The rapeller is strong and quick. If the night had been darker, I might have, but the sky's red tint would have silhouetted me and these soldier-boys have the eyes of hardened veterans.

The ring of soldiers parts. Into the candlelight steps a mustached face I prayed I'd never see again.

Unable to stop it, a curse slips through my lips.

"Looks like we have our prize," says the General.

My only encounter with the General happened three years ago, when I was a whole man. We had been taken by surprise, among the rubble and bodies, beneath a sky black with smoke and red with fire. They killed Petr in the ambush's opening salvo; a bullet through the cheek will do that.

We were lined up, and the General himself walked our ranks, his right hand resting on the butt of his pistol like he fancied himself an old time gunslinger.

He stopped in front of me and eyed the bars on the shoulder of my uniform. From the crinkle of his nose, he didn't like the smell of me, but the General didn't like the smell of anyone wearing our colors.

Without a movement or a word, he somehow instructed his attaché to draw his pistol. The soldier-boy, who couldn't have been more than half my age, drew his weapon and pointed it at my nose.

At least a bullet in the face is quick, I thought. Assuming the angle is right.

But the bullet wasn't for me. The soldier-boy swung the pistol toward the man on my left and fired. Michel dropped, a hole in his stomach. He writhed on the ground, trying to be silent, but his grunting and whimpering wrenched my gut more than any scream.

"A bullet in the stomach," the General said. "A gristly way to die." His accent was from the east, but none of us knew from where he actually came. "The acid leaks from the stomach. Eats into the muscles and the intestines."

I would have told the General everything if it would have bought us all bullets in the head, but I knew nothing of value.

The General removed a cigarette and a wooden match from a silver case. On the lid was engraved "With Love D.A.S." To this day, I still wonder if those initials belonged to someone dear to the General or if they embossed a spoil looted from another man's life.

He lit the cigarette. Its sweet smoke reminded me of my father who sold me to the military when I was twelve.

"Nothing to say?" asked the General around the smoke.

Michel begged them to shoot him again.

"When that man dies, shoot another, and then another. When this one is ready to say something, bring him to me."

When Michel went still, the attaché moved to the next man, but before he could shoot, a bomb exploded in our midst. I remember little: a geyser of dirt, screams, a flash that burned a hole in my retinas, but not before I saw the attaché's head cut from his body by a piece of shrapnel the size of a dinner plate. Mostly I remember the pain in my hips where my legs used to be. As I bled out, a platoon of our boys funneled down out of the rubble shooting and bayonetting the last of the General's men. A medic knelt over me and slipped a tourniquet around my stumps.

"No, no," I pleaded, but in my shock I couldn't manage the words I really wanted.

The General's new attaché waves his pistol and the soldiers in the ring grab everyone from the table but the Governor and his wife and push them into the dark.

I wait for the gunshots, but silence continues to rest on us like a noose on my shoulders.

The Governor squeezes his wife's hand, but it does not still her trembling.

Alone, next to the Governor, I feel naked. I cover my metal fingers with my flesh ones, but I can do nothing to hide my missing legs.

The attaché leans in from the darkness. "Twenty-six prisoner, one dead, and fourteen mechs," he says.

I hastily tally the numbers in my head. They have everyone.

The General removes his gloves by meticulously pulling the tip of each finger before sliding his hand out. He stacks the gloves together and hands them to his attaché, who tucks them neatly into his shirt pocket.

The General smooths his mustache by running his thumb and index finger around the sharp edges of his lips. He has a hateful mouth, like a jagged line cut with a serrated knife.

"Bring me the one in charge," the General says. The attaché slips back into the darkness, as if he were a piece of it.

"I am in charge here," says the Governor. His words sound strained.

The General grins. His silence says more than any words: You are in charge of nothing anymore.

The General's gaze slides from the Governor to me. He gives no indication that he recognizes who I am. Why should he? Surely I was one of thousands he had interrogated. I am not an individual to him; no, I am far below that. What he sees are no legs and a metal hand.

At that moment, Lucic is brought to the table. He gives no outward indication that anything is wrong; his composure is startling. I do not think Lucic ever spent time on the front, but he would have made an exceptional officer. "Welcome to the Café Renaissance," he says.

I flinch. While Lucic's voice holds no hint of mockery, how can anyone interpret it differently?

"I do not know how you do it," the General says. "Your guests dine while the City falls. Is the food that good?"

"It is humble fare for difficult times," says Lucic.

"Food for the end of the world," says the General.

"Catastrophe cuisine, yes."

"This I must try."

The attaché glances sidelong at the General, but says nothing.

The General sits opposite the Governor and his wife. He points at me. "Mech, where is my napkin?"

I do not move until Lucic nudges me. I pick up an unused linen and snap the ash from it. The crisp white cloth glows in the citron light. Reluctantly, I spread it across the General's lap.

He grabs my hand and holds it up. The metal glints in the candlelight. "To tolerate such abominations," he says to the Governor. "No wonder your City burns. You lack the balls to cull the weak, and it weakens you all." He releases my hand.

"You are the cook?" the General asks Lucic.

"I am the chef," Lucic admits.

"Bring the food then. The Governor and I have much to discuss."

The General allows Lucic and the other cooks to return to the kitchen.

Before he departs, I grab Lucic's arm with metal fingers. "I will serve the General," I say.

Lucic considers my statement and delivers a curt nod.

Once in the kitchen, Lucic insists we prepare enough for the entire room. Several of the cooks look hesitantly in my direction. I do not share Lucic's optimism that this will be anything other than a last meal, but I nod at the cooks, and they set about finishing the next course.

A soldier-boy stands guard at the end of the counter. Based on the scars puckering his face and neck, he is a grizzled veteran. The attaché circulates through the kitchen, poking his grimy face beneath rattling pot lids.

I pretend to help Lucic by clumsily chopping carrots at his side. "The General will kill us in the end," I whisper. The sound of my knife on the wooden board is loud enough so that no one else can hear me.

Lucic's hands deftly debone a small bird -- a pigeon or something like it that Paget had captured that morning from nests in the cathedral's rafters.

Pausing in my chopping, I watch his skillful hands extract each bone with little damage to the surrounding flesh. Those hands served him equally well on the battlefield; I imagined them cutting through the skin on my hand to remove the shattered bones so that metal ones could be grafted into their place.

"I know a place nearby to pick monks hood," I say. "A little in the sauce and that will be that."

Lucic's hands stop.

My brow furrows; I cannot look at him. To Lucic, the meal is sacred.

"Bolduc," he says. His voice is gentle, but tinged with disappointment. The way it stings me is confusing. "We must move beyond the killing," he says.

I bite my tongue.

The soldier ogles a turnip on the counter and sees nothing else.

"The payment for your morality will be a bayonet in the stomach," I say. "The General is a butcher and deserves to die."

"That is what some have said of me." Lucic gives me a knowing look.

"That was different," I say, averting my eyes.

"We are better than that."

Am I truly better than that? Right now I don't want to be.

My chopping knife sounds like a lazy machine gun staccato. Chunks of carrots roll across my board onto the stone countertop like little orange heads. I set the knife aside. My wrist hurts where the metal and flesh meet. The pain is always there, a constant reminder of what I am. I rub my hand, feeling where the metal phalanges meet the metacarpals under the skin of my palm. I have often thought that if I cut my hand off at the wrist no one would know what I am.

The grizzled veteran is still hypnotized by the turnip. I could bounce my wires and rocket up into the dark. Among the rafters and broken walls are many hiding places where those with legs could never reach. Then I look at my brethren scattered around the small kitchen, busily preparing the last meal, and I realize I cannot abandon them. I would rather be the first under the General's bayonet than to come down from the rafters at first light and alight among the human rubble.

Blood pounds in my ears, music that sings: you are still human.

The first time I met Lucic, he was a mechineer. In many ways, that's the same as a chef in that he took exotic ingredients that seemed ill-suited to be paired, mixed them in the right proportions, and produced something unexpected. For me it was copper pipe, lengths of filed steel -- probably cut from a bumper because of the camo paint still on them -- assorted brass gears, elastic bands, and bits of plastic and foam.

The day after I awoke in the infirmary, Lucic visited me. He brought with him a warm smile.

If I had been able to control the metal fingers he had given me, I would have stabbed them into his eyes, plucked them out and worn them like rings.

"You are alive," he said, "but you must eat and drink, or you will not stay that way."

Overhead, dirigible props thrummed the air, as they headed toward the front. I did not think it possible, but the stench of gangrenous flesh was stronger in the infirmary than in the trenches.

Lucic delicately probed the tender skin on my hip and made a note on a chart.

In the bed next to me, another soldier wheezed. His left lung had been replaced with a bellow that protruded from his back, to the side of a segmented metal spine, like a centipede. My stomach threatened to revolt with every dry rasp of his breath.

"You should have let me die," I said.

"Death is not the answer."

"Except when the question is do I want death or to live like this?"

"You are the same man you were yesterday and the day before that."

I didn't want to be that man either.

I looked away from him, thinking that maybe he would leave if I ignored him, but all around me were half-men and glassy stares. I squeezed my eyes shut. I was surrounded by abominations.

"Your legs do not make you human," he said. "I have seen many with legs whose humanity I would question."

The words did nothing to soothe me.

Lucic visited every day, but I did not speak to him again. The night I was cleared to return to the front, I slipped in among the bodies piled in the dead-wagon and was dumped with them into an open, mass grave. The flies and squirming maggots nearly drove me mad, but I finally managed to free myself from the tangle of bodies, crawl over the lip of the hole, and escape into the night.

"Perhaps Paget should serve," Lucic says.

I shake my head. I cannot ask anyone else to serve the General -- two-to-one the server doesn't survive the course.

My tray loaded, I take a moment to calm my breathing. The attaché raises his pistol like a trophy. "Nothing funny, half-man," he warns.

I bounce my wires and ratchet up into the dark, tray in hand. Once among the rafters, I hear gunfire and bombs in a nearby quadrant of the city. I wonder if anyone will try to rescue the Governor.

I drop through the dark toward the tables below, picking up speed as I go. The wires thrum.

"-- only to restore order to the chaos," the General is saying as I come in over the top of the table and stop several meters from him.

The Governor's frown looks like it has hardened onto his face.

"If I need do it with a gun," says the General, "then so be it."

Balancing the tray with my metal hand, I place the General's plate on the table with my other. I lift the cover.

The steam makes my mouth water.

I have never seen a work of art, but the presentation on the plate is how I imagine it would look.

"Escabèche de colombe with bone marrow croquette and fairy ring mushrooms," I say.

The General eyes the food arrayed across the plate. I doubt he has ever seen such a fine meal. He snaps his fingers.

Two soldiers seize the Governor's wife and drag her chair around next to the General's. The Governor starts to rise, but a soldier-boy thrusts the muzzle of his rifle into his face until he sits again.

"There is no reason to hurt anyone," the Governor says. "You have me. Let the others go."

His wife's face is the color of a hardboiled egg. The Governor should know this isn't about killing, right here right now. This is about the General asserting his power.

"I trust no one," the General says, "especially my enemies." He cuts a piece of meat and dredges it through the sauce. He holds it up to the Governor's wife's lips.

She clamps her mouth closed. Her smudged lipstick and eyeliner give her the aura of a soldier-boy, and for a moment I flash back to the General strutting before me while Michel writhes on the ground with a hole in his stomach.

The General smears the food across her lips. The sauce runs down her chin.

The Governor tries to rise and gets his temple opened with a rifle butt.

"This isn't necessary," he says. His red blood streams from under his hand, down the side of his face and onto his grey shirt. "If you do not trust yours, then take mine."

"What makes you think your life is worth any more than mine?"

The General grabs the woman's ear and tugs it. When she opens her mouth, he shoves the food in. "Swallow it or I'll kill you where you sit," he says, pushing the fork tines against her throat until the skin dimples inward from the pressure.

I want to tell her the food is safe, but I am afraid. For now, I have been forgotten.

The Governor's wife sobs as she chews and swallows the escabèche.

Satisfied, the General pulls the plate closer and begins to shovel the food into his mouth. He eats like he fights, gouging away ragged chunks of meat. He spears a mushroom onto the fork tines and appraises it like a head on a pike before grinding it between his teeth. All the while he grunts around each mouthful.

I find it difficult to watch. If Lucic ever were to ask, I would never tell him about the General's assault on the meal. Lucic deserves better.

I am not stopped from bouncing my wire and rising into the night. As I drop toward the kitchen, I see a flash of orange in the darkness near the back of the cathedral, and, for the briefest moment, the faces of the attaché and another soldier-boy shine. I alter my course and stop several meters above them, still wrapped in night.

"-- outflanked us and are moving this way," says the soldier-boy.

The attaché makes a guttural sound. A cigarette tip flares orange, then is passed from one to the other. The sweet smoke makes my mouth water -- chamomile, because tobacco disappeared long ago.

"We can't get enough on them. They'll be here soon."

"How soon?"

The soldier-boy drags on the cigarette. Its glow outlines his gaunt face. "Twenty minutes, maybe less," he says.

"Slow their advance --"

"We can't --"

"Find a way. I'll inform the General that it's time to leave."

The soldier-boy offers the cigarette back to the attaché who waves it away. He puts it back between his lips as the attaché slips into the night.

I do not even think about it; my military training takes over, and I drop behind the soldier-boy. He notices me at the last moment, but not before I am able to cover his mouth with my flesh hand and twist his head violently with the other. His neck pops. I bounce my wire, and we rise up toward the rafters.

I tie the body into the rigging and hang there for a moment collecting my breath.

My flesh hand shakes. I have killed dozens of men, with bullets and bayonet and once with a rock. Why is this one any different?

Tracers incise the night sky and leave afterimages on my retinas. Lost in the smoke, dirigibles thrum, a constant symphony to the unfolding battle. Not far away, muzzles flash like fireflies. The fighting is close.

If we can keep the General occupied, then maybe our soldiers can get here. Maybe there is -- I shake my head. Hope is something that died long before my humanity. I will not come out of this alive, but if I can take the General with me . . . That is my goal.

My hands have settled, so I drop into the kitchen to find Lucic.

Lucic is busy plating the dessert, and I cannot bring myself to interrupt him while he skillfully shapes the custard. Once he has finished, I open my mouth to speak, but before I can say anything, the attaché orders us to the dining area. Lucic protests, but a pistol leveled at his face silences him.

"Help me," I say, extending my arm.

Lucic gives me a quizzical look, but takes my arm. Without my legs, I am a slave to the wires, which makes movement along the ground difficult. Lucic takes my arm and pulls me alongside him as the kitchen staff is herded toward the dining area.

"Tell me, Lucic," I whisper. "When you found me, how did you know?"

"That you had not given up?"

"Yes. How did you know?"

"A man who had given up would have gone back to the front." Or up into the rafters. He doesn't say this, but I see it in his eyes when they glance upwards into the night.

"Help is near," I say. "If we can delay . . ."

Lucic arches an eyebrow.

The General's men have lined up everyone, face to the wall and are prepared to shoot them in the back. A woman sobs and one of the Governor's sycophants mutters about his worth to the General as a prisoner of war.

"You." The attaché points at Lucic with his pistol. "Come with me."

Lucic does not release my arm as he follows the attaché. The Governor's wife is led past us, toward the execution line. I look back at her, as she fades into the night like it is smoke, and I wonder if she knows.

At the table, the Governor struggles against two soldier-boys, until a rifle muzzle to his gut bends him over.

The General snaps a round into the chamber of his pistol. He fixes us with cold eyes. "My compliments to the chef," he says. The way his eyes narrow, the compliment signifies no favor from what is about to happen.

"The meal is not over, General. You cannot judge --"

The attaché cracks Lucic's skull with his pistol.

Lucic crumples to the ground, clutching at the bloody gash above his right eye. Without thinking, I reach toward the attaché, but I stop when he swings the pistol barrel around to me. I see in his eyes that my life means nothing. I raise my hands, uncertain if it will matter.

I jump at the rattle of machine guns. Only after I realize they are distant can I draw a breath to speak. "How can we save humanity if we act like animals?" Instinctively I flinch, expecting a bullet. When it doesn't come I open my eyes.

The General fills my vision. If I could have, I would have stepped back.

"We are no threat to you," I say. My words are barely audible. "You can leave here with the Governor and probably put an end to the killing, for now. Why kill everyone?"

"To wipe away the ugly," the General says.

My hands shake. Somehow I do not piss myself.

"This is no way to make the world less ugly," I say.

"And this little restaurant is?"

Lucic groans from a spot on the floor that should have been next to my feet.

The Governor stares up at me from his knees. His head moves a fraction to either side, as if imploring me not to risk any more.

"The Café Renaissance," I say, "is a place where even the ugly in the world is capable of becoming something unexpected and beautiful, if given the chance. The Café Renaissance is hope."

"All that from a meal?" The General laughs. It is an awful sound like the barking of a mangy animal echoing through a culvert. "Perhaps the cook is right."

Out of the corner of my eye, the attaché's mouth opens to protest.

"The final course is prepared," I say before the attaché can speak. "It will take only a moment to retrieve it."

"Bring it to me, then. And quickly; my patience is small."

I do not hesitate.

I bounce my wires and rocket to the kitchen. I barely slow as I drop to the counter where Lucic had been working; the wires tug at the bolts fixed into my metal hip as I rapidly decelerate.

The custard has been plated, but the dessert is unfinished. My eyes scour the counter: a small bowl of crystallized honey, a few springs of glittery mint, a bottle of sauce, remnants of previous courses, utensils.

I may be a product of Lucic's magic, but I do not possess his talent to finish this work. Then my eyes land on the bone shears, and I grin with inspiration.

The General sits on the edge of the table, casually cradling his pistol in his crossed arms. If I did not know better, I would never have suspected he was about to order the deaths of nearly fifty people. I put the plate on the table next to him.

Lucic looks up from the ground, one eye wide, the other bloodied and swollen shut.

"Get on with it, half-man," says the General. He doesn't even look at me.

"Egg custard surprise with sweet honey globes and sugared mint," I say. I lift the lid.

The attaché gasps, but I force my eyes to stay on the General's face. Everything else around me disappears. The world goes quiet as if the sound has fallen between the stretching seconds.

The General looks down. His brow crinkles. The plate is a jumble of custard and sauce adorned with golden spheres of honey. In the middle of it all stands a neatly snipped metal finger. The General's eyes widen.

Time snaps forward in a rush of sound and motion.

Machine guns erupt in the darkness.

The General's head snaps up.

I throw the metal plate cover at the attaché who stands transfixed by the dessert. I lunge forward, seizing the General in a bear hug that pins his arms between our bodies. The rapeller spins and yanks us up into the darkness.

Bullets whistle by. In the strobe of muzzle flashes, people scramble for cover. Lucic is on his feet, wrestling with the attaché for control of his pistol. Paget, and several other waiters lined up against the wall, bounce their wires and fly upward. Soldier-boys wearing the City's colors storm in over the rubble of the north wall exchanging fire with the General's men.

With the General's added weight, the rapeller cannot hold us aloft. We slow, high above the tables, pivot in the harness, and begin to drop.

As we start back toward the ground, I try to release the General, but he grabs me around my neck, and it's all I can do to stop him from crushing my windpipe. Paget whizzes by, nearly colliding with us as we tumble groundward. We reach the end of the wires. With a snap, the bolts in my hips rip free, and I crash atop the General.

For a second, we lie stunned; then the General rolls to his knees and raises his pistol, which by some miracle he has not dropped. Marc-Andre swings out of the dark, but the General puts a bullet into his head, and his limp body continues on, leaking an arc of red blood.

I roll across the floor and under a table. My metal hand is mangled to the point of uselessness; I can't bend the twisted fingers.

The General empties his pistol cartridge, replaces it in a single smooth motion, and continues to kill. In the confusion, he has lost track of me, and he does not notice me on the ground near his feet.

The Governor moves in a crouch toward the General. A table knife gleams in his hand. His bravery is admirable but stupid.

The General turns, but before his pistol can come around, I slash at his ankles with my ragged fingers. The sharp metal cuts easily through his skin and underlying tendons. The wound causes the General's shot to miss the Governor's heart; instead the bullet clips the Governor's shoulder. I slash a second time, cutting deeply into his calves.

The General tumbles to the ground, clutching at his legs.

I grab a handful of his shirt in my flesh hand and pull myself onto his chest. He tries to roll away, but the weight of my body is enough to pin him. I push the sharp points of my fingers against his neck.

"Call them off," I say.

The General grimaces, and I realized it is his best attempt at a smile.

"Call them off or they'll all die."

"They are soldiers," he says. "They are parts of the machine, interchangeable and disposable." He closes his eyes when my fingers draw droplets of blood. What do I care about the General or his men? Their deaths would be a blessing.

Yet, I cannot drive my metal fingers into his neck.

The killing has to stop somewhere. Someone needs to be brave enough to make it stop.

"You took my legs, but I won't let you take my humanity."

That night, the City's army turned back the General's forces. Without their leader, they retreated to the east.

The City's military leaders pushed to pursue and destroy them, but the Governor, deciding there had been enough killing, called them back.

While not everyone who had been in the Café Renaissance that night lived to see it, the City survived.

Dawn comes, cutting the smoke and ash with shafts of yellow light. I sit with Lucic in the wreckage of the Café.

The dead, half-man and whole men, have been borne away together. For a time, the survivors had lingered, exchanging comfort. With help from the Governor's wife, Paget extracted a bullet from the arm of one of the sycophants while the others watched. Eventually, they trickle away in groups of two or three. The Governor is the last to leave, and only after extracting a promise from me that I would come later that day to discuss a proposition. "It is time for things to change," he says, as he carefully shakes the remnants of my metal hand.

I sit in the silence for a while, and I realize then just how quiet it is. Until that moment, I had not noticed that the war, for now at least, is over. I pinch my arm. The pain surprises me.

Lucic has finally located my legs in all the mess, and together we carefully slot them into my pelvis. "Now what?" I ask.

"I can fix your hand," Lucic says. "If you want."

"That's not what I mean," I say, "but I would like that."

Lucic finishes attaching the bands on my legs before looking up at me. "I think it is time for me to move on," he says. "I hear Avignon needs a restaurant."

"But the café --"

"It is yours, Bolduc."

I cannot find the right words, so I shake my head and say, "No. The Café Renaissance cannot survive without you."

"That is as well," Lucic says. "I don't think you need it anymore."

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