The Hydraulic Emperor

The Hydraulic Emperor is nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds long.

It was filmed on an eighteen-quadcopter neocamera rig back when neocameras were the only way to make immersive film: an early effort by Aglaé Skemety, whose Bellfalling Ascension is still the critical darling of the immersion-culture literati. The Hydraulic Emperor falls sometime between her earliest juvenile work and the single decade of her greatest public productivity. Most references list it as lost, as it has never been distributed, and no public archive will admit to possessing it. But there is at least one print of it which survives.

I have never seen it.

Film hunters have always kept lists. Scrawled on folded-up scraps of paper or composed into your personal datastick, all the films you’re trying to hunt down. The lists shift over time. You cross off the easy catches. You get obsessed with a director or an actor or a movement, and suddenly your list is overpopulated with work in languages from three planets you’ve never even set foot on. Titles move up or down. And then you look at your list and realize that at the very top, starred and underlined twice, is a single work—and it’s been the same work at the top of the list for a quarter of your life.

Mine has been The Hydraulic Emperor for a very long time. It recedes from me in the distance like a mirage.

I came out of a viewing marathon down in the lower corridors of Nguyen-5 Station, blinking at the neon lights overhead and trying to get used to seeing with my own eyes. Nineteen hours of immersive film made me feel exiled from the simplicity of my body. I’d hung, a null-point in narrative space, through the entire oeuvre of Tsa-Eleven, who’d spent their whole filmmaking career on the same long-range exploration ship, reusing the same sets, the same soldier-actors, to tell twenty-six different stories. Immersive film is not interactive. You’re just there, surrounded by someone’s multi-point vision, like a ghost. The film happens to you. Despite you. No matter what you do.

The hand that tapped me on the shoulder was cooler and smoother than a flesh hand, and I was newly enough out of the film to be shocked by being touched. I flinched; the hand and the person the hand belonged to caught me before I could stumble.

“Are you Mallory? Mallory Iheji?” the person asked. They were mostly made of plastics, half their face and at least one arm transparent, glittering with exposed circuitry underneath. Their tongue was still biological, and very red, and pierced. I recognized them as the person who had brought the reel of Tsa-Eleven’s Fifteen (Of Twenty-Six) to the viewing marathon, the one that had the famously missing last seven minutes restored. They were not a common sight at marathons, on Nguyen-5 or anywhere else. I had no idea where they’d gotten that rare of a reel.

I acknowledged that I was that Mallory.

“You are the person I’ve been looking for, then,” said my interlocutor. “Let me buy you a drink and make you a proposition.”

I made a gesture which implied that persons configured like this person were not to my sexual or romantic taste, which earned me a quick shake of the head and a tighter grip on my elbow.

“A business proposition, Ms. Iheji. It concerns a film.”

“Neither,” I clarified, “am I interested in selling any portion of my collection.”

“No, no. You misunderstand. It is your abilities as a collector that interest me.”

“If you are going to buy me a drink and make me a proposition involving collections,” I said, “I would like to have a name to call you.”

“Evgen Lilla,” the person said. “I work for Kinesis Industrial One.”

“The shipping company.”

“Yes.”

I allowed my eyebrows to climb towards my hairline. “Kinesis Industrial has interests in immersive film.”

Lilla smiled. “Kinesis Industrial is interested in film because you are interested in film, Ms. Iheji, and we are interested in you.” They steered me around the corridor corner and through a corrugated door splashed red with the glyphs for food, privacy, alcohol—a cut-rate restaurant.

I shook my arm free. “Interested in what sense?” I said.

“We’d like to offer you a contract. Short-term, single-target. On our expense account for incidentals, naturally.”

The booth Lilla sat us in was soundproofed and waiterless. The table between us glowed with neon pictures of noodle bowls and cocktails. I pressed my thumb into the image of spicy miso ramen, twisted it to the left so that the table’s auto-needles could take a tiny sip of my blood and verify my available funds. The table chimed, and my soup rose out of the center of it, steaming. I guessed I was going to consider the offer seriously, if I’d ordered food. Some decisions you make before you realize you’re making them.

“Single-target,” I said, tapping the table so it would disgorge chopsticks for me. “You’re aware, I’m sure, that I don’t do wetwork?”

I don’t. I find things, mostly. Things, and sometimes people. Misplaced or stolen or just not wanting to be dragged into easy visual range. Murder is beyond my skillset, even on a Kinesis Industrial expense account.

Lilla had ordered some sort of rooibos milk tea in a highball glass, with a straw large enough to suck up the tapioca pearls through. “Kinesis Industrial wouldn’t hire you for that, Ms. Iheji. We have specialists.”

I made the obligatory amused noise, and waited for them to get on with it.

“Kinesis Industrial would like to own a Qath puzzlebox,” Lilla said. “We know there will be one for auction in the Selwyn Protectorate early next week. We’d like you to acquire it.”

I sucked soup through my teeth and thought about it, because I’d never have expected to get that kind of request from a client who was a multi-planetary conglomerate.

The thing is, you can’t buy a Qath box. They aren’t for sale. They’re for trade. The Qath come out of their wormhole-eating ship, all insectile mantis-limbs unfolding, and show you a little puzzle of wood and mirrors and some other materials human scientists still haven’t solved the chemistry of. It’s so pretty, and it doesn’t make sense. Then they ask what you’ll exchange for the thing. The auctions they hold aren’t auctions: they’re sacrifice contests. The person who gives away whatever the Qath like best gets the prize. There’s a woman back on Aurum Station who traded her own genetic clone, at least according to the local tabloid rag, and considering what I’ve seen people do to get close to a Qath auction, the tabloid might have underplayed it.

I’m not into aliens the way the Qath groupies are into aliens. A Qath box doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t tell you anything about someone else’s mind; it won’t let you out of yourself, even for a minute. It’s just not human, which apparently gets to some people: the strangeness of it, of owning something made by otherwise life, otherwise minds. The Qath are the only aliens we’ve got, and they don’t interact with us much—but they like their auctions. Their auctions and their little boxes. What Kinesis Industrial wanted with one I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

I said, “Are you providing access to the auction?” which was as good as telling Lilla I was interested.

Lilla handed me a manila envelope. Low-tech, but remarkably ubiquitous even in places like Nguyen-5. “Ticket to Selwyn, entrance fee, and letter of introduction. We’re quite certain the Qath will be curious about a film connoisseur; the last two winners were collectors.”

“Of what?” I asked, in a sort of mordant curiosity.

“Old coins,” said Lilla, “and serial-murder trophies. Respectively.” They grinned, showing that red-flushed tongue. “Immersive film seemed like something just between.”

I did not dignify that with a response. “What fee are you prepared to pay? On top of the expense account, Lilla.”

“Open the envelope, Ms. Iheji.”

I did. Inside were the promised documents, and a folded slip of heavyweight paper. I unfolded it and read the address written there in calligraphic Roman letters.

“We know where you can get a print of The Hydraulic Emperor,” said Lilla.

Aglaé Skemety was born on Vaspral, a chilly-climate planet whose main exports are water ice, geologists, and post-epic folkpunk hymn cycles, which maintain a remarkable degree of popularity amongst long-haul ship crews. She was educated as an electrical engineer and got offplanet by seventeen. She showed up on the edges of the immersion culture scene four years later, writing criticism for zines and appearing in some rare photographs of Central System immersion clubs. My favorite shows her stretched out prone on a couch, electrodes at her temples, absent from her body entirely: she is carelessly positioned, her jaw lax, strands of chin-length black hair caught in the gloss of her inner lower lip. I wish I knew what she was seeing.

Her first films appear shortly after the dated photographs. She built the neocameras herself; all of her early efforts have a particular grainy texture to the experience of their surfaces, like eating gritty oysters every time your point-of-view touches a table or someone else’s skin. Most of the juvenilia is short: thirty-eight seconds, two minutes eleven. It is already focused on spectacle seen from uncomprehending angles; on unusual tastes. For thirty-eight seconds a woman searches for a coin in an airlock. She removes her helmet and places the coin in her mouth; the taste of metal is the same as the taste of deoxygenization as the airlock cycles—hypoxia, ebullism. It is juvenile; the early Skemety pieces shock more than they do anything else. They are not commonly available, but any Skemety festival will play the prints between her more popular works.

There are no modern photographs of her. No film. No holograph. She vanishes from public view just when her work began to be most appreciated. In the last eleven years she has been verifiably seen twice. It is as if, having begun to be capable of producing her art, she rendered herself down into the invisible point-of-view that characterizes it. She’s a ghost, Aglaé is. A ghost that produces. Her work erases her, or she disappears inside it.

We aren’t sure whether the Qath are telepathic or just have a very complex definition of sacrifice and a propensity for deep biographical research. Either way, the sacrifices have to be real: they have to matter to the person making them. Expense and rarity don’t seem to matter as much as emotional trauma and multi-person effects. I keep wondering what happened to that woman’s clone. When the Qath take a sacrifice it doesn’t come back.

Most of my sacrifices fit into a small briefcase. I was genuinely hoping that I wouldn’t have to bet the best one; the idea made me a little sick.

On Selwyn, my letter of entry brought me to the auction’s administrator. She was as human as me, a tall dark woman in white. The Qath have mouths and language which is audible on the usual human frequencies, but they don’t much like talking to us directly. They hire intermediaries. I wondered if this administrator had ever met her alien masters, or if there was at least another layer of obfuscation between her and them. She didn’t seem like a xenostruck alien-hunter type—she was officious and practical, triple-checking my references and handing me a stack of printed transparencies a half-inch high explaining all the auction’s rules. She’d probably been doing this sort of thing on Selwyn long before the Qath picked this planet for their latest socio-ethical live laboratory. I gave her my thumbprint in acknowledgement of receipt of all that paperwork, which she noted down without fuss—my reputation was not preceding me onto Selwyn, apparently, or it didn’t matter who I’d been on other planets now that I had Kinesis One backing me up—and then she showed me a holographic representation of the Qath box and asked for my opening bid.

I gave her an independently-notarized inventory of every single immersive film produced by the Quaternary Collective. I don’t care about the Quaternary Collective like I care about Skemety, but I care enough. It took real work to assemble that collection. I’m proud of it. I spent nineteen hours in a tiny all-terrain vehicle traveling to Roambi City for first-pressing recordings of a live Quaternary performance. Half of collecting is about remembering how you found one of your items. Remembering what vivid horror you escaped out of when you fell into the film instead: every muscle in my back complaining about the road conditions, nauseous and hungry at once, miserable at the end of a job gone bad. And then the release, the null-space, the personlessness of the film.

The auction administrator took my inventory and stamped it good enough, and there was my opening bet put in.

The auction was in rounds. The Qath would evaluate all of our prospective sacrifices and rank them publicly at the close of each round; on the following round we could try to top ourselves. Give away something that hurt enough. In between rounds we’d mill about in the Hotel Terminus, a black-glass spear of a building nestled in Selwyn’s poshest district, trying to figure out who to outmaneuver and what sort of sacrifices everyone else had brought along. No one came to a Qath auction an innocent. No one innocent had the right kind of sacrifices to make.

That evening I wore a grey silk jumpsuit that Kinesis One’s money had bought for me, and covered my eyelids and lips with persimmon orange dyes, and took the elevator—a tiny steel box like a spacefarer’s coffin—up to the highest floor of the hotel. There was a ballroom up there, glittering under a transparent rooftop, complete with underfloor lighting and the kind of open bar that doesn’t demand a sip of your blood before it dispenses unlimited cocktails.

Either some of the other bidders had brought entourages, or there were a lot more of them than I’d assumed there would be. I was appropriately late: the rest of the crowd was already clumping and dissolving in conversational knots. I got the bar to give me a drink that was mostly vodka and slightly blue, and waded in. The sky roiled through that translucent ceiling, grey and yellow, Selwyn’s perpetual storm.

We all had the same reasons for being here: something we wanted to give up.

It made for easy conversation. I didn’t mention who’d sponsored me and neither did anyone else, though I spotted at least one agent for a planetary governor and one young man whose face I had last seen splashed on the front pages of a financial-corruption tabloid expose. He was sweet, though, and every gentle conversational needle I employed slid off him like water rolling down glass. I let him be. If he outbid me on the first round I could approach him again.

On my second glass of blue vodka, I discovered that the people who would talk about their sacrifices at all couldn’t shut up about them. It was like a confessional compulsion. One person pushed up her blouse again and again to show the top of the pale curving scar where her reproductive organs had been removed. She talked about hereditary legacies with a fervency that felt like a rehearsal, as if she was pretending we were all the Qath, set to evaluate the largeness of what she’d given up. Another woman had come with a set of jade disks from Old Earth: six thousand years old already when humanity had shucked off that planet and headed out into the black, and rare enough that they might be the only ones left. She was a threat. She understood how sacrifice was powered by memory.

So did I, which was probably why Kinesis One hired me and not some other consultant with a weird obsession with collecting art.

Someone tapped me, fingertips on bare skin, high where the meat of my shoulder was turning into my neck. I didn’t startle or spill my drink; I turned around.

I hadn’t seen Averill Kesily for years. When I left him the last time there’d been a security guard’s gun to his temple and I’d had the files we’d both been looking for under my shirts, crackling if I breathed too deeply. He’d waved at me as I left, just a little movement of his fingers against the fabric of his trousers, and he’d looked more serene right then than I’d ever seen him be.

I’d thought he was dead.

He said “Mallory, I would never have expected to see you at a Qath auction,” as if I’d disappointed him.

“People change,” I said. People did. I hadn’t, unless being willing to work for Kinesis One was a change, and I didn’t think it was. It was The Hydraulic Emperor I wanted, not a Qath box. I wondered what Averill was here for. I couldn’t imagine him alien-chasing any more than I suspected he was having trouble imagining me doing it.

“Not you,” said Averill. “I always thought.”

“Kesily,” I told him, “I always thought you would have come back to me if you weren’t dead, so we’re even there. Buy you a drink?”

He didn’t have the decency to look hurt, but then he’d never had much decency at all. “The drinks are free,” he said. His smile got nowhere near his eyes. “But you can get me one if you’d like.”

I got him one. We leaned on the bar, elbow by elbow, just like we used to.

Averill drank brandy, straight. Either I’d remembered what he liked, or he was pretending he still liked it. The liquor shone on the inside of his lower lip. We were both watching the crowd. It’s funny, the habits you fall into. Give me ten more minutes and I’d have matched my respiratory pace to his, just out of the fucking familiarity. There was no good reason for him to be here, even if he had the poor taste to have spent the past half-decade alive.

After a while, he said, “It’s rude to ask you what you bet, but it’s damn hard imagining you giving anything up.”

“Who says I’m giving up something of mine?”

“Figures you wouldn’t come here for you.”

I wasn’t sure what that was meant to imply. “And you did?” I asked.

“Who says I came here for me?”

I laughed. I was on my way to drunk, and laughing with Averill was easy.

There are six seconds of The Hydraulic Emperor that I’ve seen. They are intercut into one of Skemety’s other films: in Slow Poison, a woman—our protagonist, dying by inches of radiation poisoning—turns on a projector she has found in a cargo container, and there is The Hydraulic Emperor in miniature. She watches six seconds: the unfolding throne, like a fungal flower, rising from the floor. The emperor’s outstretched trembling hand. In Slow Poison, the protagonist stares at how the hand trembles; she is obsessed with her own tremors. I want to see what she doesn’t—I want to see the throne, I want to see the room, I want to know the rest of that film and to breathe it in and experience it entire, and I can’t. I am seeing it through Slow Poison’s eyes. And those six seconds are all I know.

They may be all there is to know. Skemety might have destroyed the film, or buried it, or dismantled it into component parts. Skemety’s fans are completists, and yet these nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds have evaded us. They have evaded me. And yet, The Hydraulic Emperor has haunted my entire history with immersive film. It echoes and reoccurs. I suspect traces of it everywhere.

How the throne peels up from the floor, some vast fan-shape, almost submarine in its unfurling: that haunts me. I see the echoes of that unfurling in the work of other artists, a glimmer like a heat-mirage, in films that were made in the years after Skemety stopped being publicly available.

But also: how I look inside cargo containers, hoping to see for myself what no one but an imaginary construct, a character made up by my favorite filmmaker, has ever seen entire.

They called the first round of the auction before I could get Averill and I another round of drinks. I was glad. The combination of anticipation and familiarity and not knowing why Averill was here—it was that same old fizzing chemistry in my blood, and the last thing I needed was to miss a round of auction to go get off with my old partner in the restrooms. But here the Qath were, two of them, pearlescent-grey and covered with tiny plush hairs, their huge eyes taking up most of their heads—coming through the double doors on the other side of the hall on four of their six legs. Picture a mantis combined with a tarantula, and then make it look like a person is inside it, looking at you from behind those awful swirling opaline eyes. That’s a Qath. Their alienness was a reprieve, even if I got the shivers: I was at work. I could think about Averill later. My job now was to give up just enough that I could get the box—and then get what I really wanted.

More than Averill Kesily, more than Kinesis One’s very large retainer. I wanted that print of The Hydraulic Emperor.

The Qath box was tiny: held in the pedipalps of the left-side Qath, a glowing thing, glass and steel and something carnelian-red in a wood frame. I wanted it. I understood, just for a moment, the wanting: that had been made by alien hands, for alien purposes. I wasn’t supposed to be able to understand it. That wasn’t why it was. It wasn’t art. It wasn’t mine. It could be a hollow space in the world, a meaningless space, as no human meanings went into its designing…

And then I felt like dousing my mind in scalding water. Nihilism wasn’t really what I went for, and still isn’t. Immersive film might be about dropping your own self, but there’s always a self to become instead. That dizzying moment of wanting the blank relief, the shut-down of meaning—no. I didn’t. I really, really didn’t want it.

I wondered if that was going to screw up my sacrifices. I guessed it would depend on whether or not the Qath were telepathic.

Structurally, the auction was simple. By whatever metrics they used, the Qath evaluated our submitted sacrifices, and assigned them each a number of points. Highest point value wins the box. The trick is—if you’ve got more sacrifices, you can add those, have them ranked, and combine the points for a new high score. What makes it interesting—for us, for the watching Qath—is that the sacrifices are listed, next to their points value, in public. And two people can trade sacrifices. Or combine them. There are as many rounds as the Qath feel like having.

Look, I said it was like a socio-ethical live laboratory. There’ve been two recorded deaths at Qath auctions, and only one of them was suicide by sacrifice.

My Quaternary Collective films were worth thirty-six points, and that ranked me third on the list. The leader, with fifty-eight, was the woman with the jade disks—and in between us was Averill.

Averill had bet the location of Aglaé Skemety, and that was worth forty-one.

Fuck, I hadn’t known he cared.

When we were partners, Averill had treated my interest in Skemety’s immersive film like a minor but endearing character flaw. He ignored it almost always, threw vicious invective if it interfered with our work, and indulged it occasionally—I have still not forgotten the night he showed up with tickets to a marathon showing of Skemety rarities on a planet we weren’t anywhere near, the tickets and my berth on the ship to get there all bought, saying go chase your grail, Mal, you need a vacation. That was after one of the bad jobs.

But I never thought he cared about immersive film enough—about Skemety herself enough—to make her into a sacrifice the Qath would want. All of her famed reclusiveness, gone. Everything exposed. In her last public interview—only voice, and with all the location markers scrambled—she said that she couldn’t stand to be seen anymore, that she couldn’t bear being known—the films were enough. The films were already too much.

I stood there, frozen, feeling shaky and suddenly miserable, like the world had gone wrong and I didn’t know how to stop it. And then I remembered what Averill had said: who says I came here for me?

Skemety wasn’t his sacrifice. Skemety was bait, for me.

If I combined my thirty-six points with his forty-one, we’d handily beat the woman with the jade disks.

I had to find out who he was working for. It was an easier question than whether or not I wanted to win this auction after all.

Of course he’d vanished into the crowd by the time I got myself together enough to chase him down. That’s Averill Kesily: slippery. There when you think he’s gone, vanished when you want him. He cut a wake in the ballroom as narrow as an eel’s. I had to work to find him, and when I did, he was in a corner surrounded by the financial-corruption case and two other young persons I hadn’t bothered to scope out—and we only had five minutes before the close of the next round of bids.

Financial-corruption said, blithe and serene, “No, I’m out—if that was only worth six points, I don’t even want to see what the Qath would think of the rest of my list —”

He looked bruised around the eyes, like he was trying not to cry. Averill gazed right past him, dismissed him, locked eyes with me. “Mallory,” he said. And that was all.

Five minutes wasn’t enough to talk about what we needed to talk about.

“I have to go put in a bid,” I said. “See you after the next round.”

I spun on my heel, and went to sacrifice something else I didn’t want to give up. This time it was my own personal copy of that photograph—the one of Skemety lying on the couch, empty-eyed, cordwood-still. It’s reproduced in magazines and biographies, of course. But I have the physical copy, I’d tracked it down and I’d bought it. It wasn’t worth much to anyone who didn’t collect Skemety ephemera. It wasn’t important; it was just important to me.

Time to see if the Qath noticed the difference.

Eighteen more points, that’s what my photo was worth.

For the first time I wondered if the thing the Qath liked about these nasty little sacrifice auctions was how angry they could make the person sacrificing. How dare you look at what I’d give away and tell me it’s worthless.

Not that eighteen points was worthless. I sat at fifty-four. Averill hadn’t budged yet: he’d dropped to fourth, at forty-one for Skemety’s location and nothing else. The new leader was the woman who’d carved out her reproductive organs, and what was listed next to her sixty points was loss of generative capacity; loss of sexual capacity. I didn’t want to know what she’d done to herself with a knife.

Averill showed up at my elbow again, like he’d dissolved in out of smoke. “Do you want another drink, or do you just want to talk?” he asked.

I wanted three more drinks, and to never talk again. “Come sit with me,” I said. He touched my arm—a brush of fingertips, ghost-touch—and followed me to a low couch, dark grey velvet in a nap so fine that sitting on it left imprints in the shape of your thighs. We stopped touching when we’d sat down. The two inches of space between our shoulders was a gulf.

“You know she doesn’t want to be found,” I said. Which wasn’t what I’d meant to say first—if I’d been smart I would have said Averill, since when can I be bought, but I wasn’t smart, I was hurt.

“It’s a sacrifice,” said Averill. “If she wanted to be found it wouldn’t work.”

I had a terrible idea, then, and I was already doing everything wrong: thinking of how Averill and I used to breathe in time, thinking of that slip of paper from Kinesis Industrial One promising me the location of a print of The Hydraulic Emperor, thinking of Aglaé Skemety, disappeared, vanished, safe. I was already doing everything wrong, so I asked, “Are you here to get Skemety a Qath box?”

Averill tilted his head to the side, like a hawk judging distance. “No,” he said, “but I think if I was I would have already won. Based on how much you’ve told me about her secrecy. If I was here for her, this sacrifice would have been worth a lot more.”

It wasn’t a bad line of argument. I wanted to believe it. I tried again. “Let’s trade, Averill. You tell me what you get if you win this auction, and I’ll do the same—since neither of us are here for the box.”

“You know I won’t expose the integrity of my employers that way,” Averill said.

I resisted the urge to hit him. Averill Kesily had never had professional ethics before; five years away from me shouldn’t have been enough time to develop them. And he’d been dead. I’d thought he was dead.

“It’s not your employers I’m interested in,” I said. “I asked what you get.”

The expression on his face twisted through interest and affection and settled to even, comfortable neutrality. “Seeing you isn’t enough?” he said.

“You could have done that any time,” I said. “Without trying to—bait me. With Skemety, and The Hydraulic Emperor—”

He shrugged. “Are you going to bet again?” he asked. “Because I need to.”

“Who gets the box, if we combine our sacrifices?” I hadn’t meant to tip my hand, but I was adrift—still adrenaline-cold, formlessly miserable.

“Whoever the Qath want to give it to,” he said. “It’s their box. How about we let them pick?”

And then he got up, and left me there with nothing but the imprint of his weight on the couch fabric.

I bet again. My own copy of Tsa-Eleven’s Twenty-Six (of Twenty-Six), the version where one of the soldier-actors breaks character in the middle, turns to the audience, tells them I hate this, I’ve always hated it, I’m not any of these people, if I could buy my way off this fucking art boat I would.

There’s been a four-year debate about whether that was scripted, but the soldier died at Lian-Anmai in the bombings, and no one can ask her.

I got twenty points. Averill bet a jade comb in the shape of a kingfisher—something from Old Earth, lost into the maw of the Qath if he won—and I watched the woman with the disks from Old Earth burst into tears right across the room. Helplessly and all at once, like she’d been slapped across the face.

It wasn’t just me, then. It was everyone here that Averill was trying to game.

I used to want to meet Aglaé Skemety. I used to want to sit across from her in some quiet restaurant, one with real waiters, far away from everyone else. Just her and me, and I’d ask why don’t you want anyone to see The Hydraulic Emperor, Aglaé? And she’d tell me.

In the fantasy I don’t usually like the answer—but I like being told. I like being party to the secret, let in at last. Her and me and nothing of being a fan between us: only the question, asked and answered, like we were equal to each other.

I used to want that a lot.

I didn’t go back to Averill. I went over to the woman with the jade disks, and I brought her a linen napkin from one of the hors d’oeuvres tables to blot her eyes with, and while she did that I asked her if she wanted to win this auction.

She lowered the napkin. Her eyes were steel and tearstained-red, and she looked at me like she’d never trusted anyone in her life and wasn’t about to start now, which made me like her despite myself.

“Yes,” she said. “Why is that even a question?”

“Do you want help?” I said. My mouth felt numb. I think I already knew what I was preparing to give up.

“What’s your price?” she asked, and I liked her even more.

“My price is you keep going until Averill Kesily loses,” I told her, “no matter what you have to sacrifice.”

“I’m Julie,” she said. “We should know each other’s names, if we’re going to do this.”

“Mallory,” I told her. She nodded.

“Have you got anything else to bet?”

“One thing,” I said. I did. I didn’t want to bet it, but I didn’t want to let Averill expose Skemety, either. I didn’t want that the same way I think Julie didn’t want to see that kingfisher disappear into a Qath ship and go away forever. One more piece of Old Earth gone, and not her piece to give, either.

Julie said, “I have one more thing, too. Come on—let’s tell the fucking aliens that we’re working together.”

They wait in the middle of the room, the Qath. During the auction: that pearlescent insectile presence, all of the eyes. The box, if you wanted to look at it again. The auction administrator, with her datapad and her projection screen, stands right next to them like she isn’t even concerned.

As far as we know, the Qath don’t eat anything as large as a human. Or at least they don’t eat anything as large as a human where other humans might see. I don’t know what they did with the genetic clone from Aurum. All I can say is that there’s an atavistic horror to being so close to them: a sense that they might be predators.

They are predators, at least in terms of how they will take whatever we are willing to give them, and dispose of it. Predators, or scavengers.

Julie and I went up to the administrator and informed her that we were combining our point totals for the duration of the auction. She had us both confirm our statements by pressing our thumbs to the edge of her datapad and letting it sip gently at our blood with its tiny needle-teeth. The Qath watched. I tried not to feel like prey.

The combined total on the projected list read: Mallory Iheji/Julie Hargrave—64 + 58 = 132 points.

Let Averill beat that.

He did.

He bet himself, the unbelievable asshole—his life, in service or in sacrifice. His agency. Anything the Qath wanted him to do, he’d do. And when that bid was read out, he looked just as perfectly, gratefully serene as he had when I’d left him under that security guard’s gun. No choices anymore, not for Averill Kesily.

It was the kind of nihilism that made me feel like the Qath box made me feel. A hollow blank space in the world, a kind of peace in not-knowing. I watched him across the ballroom, past the knots of people; watched him shrug a little, and settle down to wait on the same couch he’d left me on, and couldn’t decide if I hated him or hurt for him.

Hated him, more. He’d just earned himself enough points to put him over the top of Julie and me. We were staring down a deficit of thirty-two points, and all I had left was the one thing I really, truly didn’t want to give away.

I never want to see The Hydraulic Emperor. What will I do with myself if that goal is gone? If I have crossed off the name on the top of my list? If there’s nothing left for me to crave access to?

I want to see The Hydraulic Emperor more than I want almost everything else. I want to be done with looking. I want to have the whole experience inside myself, I want the memory of seeing the film, being in the null-space of immersion and seeing that film. I want the taste of it, a pebble in my mouth to roll around when I am thirsty and there isn’t any water.

And yet: all of Aglaé Skemety’s work is an act of disappearance.

Julie had six points of scavenged museum data-disks, in a language no one can read anymore, and I saw how much it hurt her to give them up, and how little they were worth. Maybe the Qath could read them. Maybe they really are telepathic, and they knew she’d already given away what mattered to her most.

So I stepped up to them, and their administrator, and fixed my eyes on that tiny, terrible box, and I said, “I bid access to a print of The Hydraulic Emperor, my guaranteed payment if I win this auction for my employer.”

It hurt. It hurt like the queasy aftermath of a hangover, that sense of fragility: all your walls down, nothing between the soft wet parts of you and the eyes of the world. It hurt because I knew that I’d been so damn close, and I wasn’t going to get free after all.

It hurt badly enough that the Qath—the nearest one, slightly more pink in its swirling grey, glitter-eyed, horrible and lovely—came over to me, and put the fucking box into my hands.

Just like that.

Auction over. Everyone else gets their sacrifices back, if they can take them—I don’t know about the woman who lost her reproductive organs. But Averill keeps Skemety’s secret, that kingfisher comb, and his own self-determination. I lose the Quaternary Collective, my photograph, Julie’s jade disks, and Twenty-Six (of Twenty-Six). I get a Qath box.

And when I give it to Kinesis Industrial One, and they pay me: I lose The Hydraulic Emperor.

I wanted to crush the box in my hands, and be spared.

It’s a good experiment, if you’re the Qath. Seeing how far we’ll go.

I didn’t crush the box. I gave it to Evgen Lilla, waiting for me outside the Hotel Terminus, and they gave me a heavy little package wrapped up in protective foam: a film reel. I held it and thought of Aglaé Skemety, wherever she is, and hoped she would stay gone. Hoped she would make another film, from whatever planet she hides on now, and let me disappear into it, be protean and disconnected and taken apart and find my way back into myself afterward, gasping, remade.

There wasn’t any possible chance I could have watched the reel before I gave it to the auction administrator. She was right there next to me. Yes, I considered it. Of course I considered it.

There is at least one print of The Hydraulic Emperor that survives, somewhere beyond human space, safe in the hands of the Qath. And I have never seen it.

Arkady Martine

Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer and, as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller, a historian of the Byzantine Empire and an apprentice city planner. Under both names she writes about border politics, rhetoric, propaganda, and the edges of the world. Arkady grew up in New York City and, after some time in Turkey, Canada, and Sweden, lives in Baltimore with her wife, the author Vivian Shaw. Find her online at arkadymartine.net or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.