Arabella of Radius Lane
by Harry Lang
When the pot-bellied mayor of Snaketown went to bed and municipal power was shut down for the night, Arabella Anthropol would rise, her eyes blossoming like icy violets in a cemetery of the old days, drinking the darkness of her empty room in the abandoned house on the derelict street of the lawless, dust-choked town. Before she even thought to breathe, those crystalline, bottomless eyes would slowly roll in steely sockets from corner to corner of the anonymous room, guided by the dim amber fingers beaming from the cybernetic brain interface clamped to her flesh-and blood-head.
The interface was built to make her like everybody else in the shredded brown remains of the world but her beams were better beams. Her beams cut unfailingly through any darkness, but you needed the right eyes to see the things they touched.
The first thing she would wonder as she nakedly sat up on her battered mattress was why mice and bugs thought just fine without the hideous brain interfaces. Of all the creatures running and hiding in all the corners of the cracked-up, two-headed world, only humans needed the guiding hand of the blinking machinery. That just didn’t make sense. You would think that all physical brains would suffer the same damage after passing through the radiation-and-disease soaked inferno of the Thousand Years’ Horror. You would think...
Pretty young Arabella’s joints didn’t creak, but she did feel stiff as she climbed to her bare feet, their tender soles feeling their way across the gritty dust of the cool, splintery floor. When the streetlights winked out and the shadows escaped the grim geometry of their knife-edged borders, it was time to go to work.
Sometimes she stopped to join the mice and nibble a crust of bread on the way out the door. Usually not. Usually she just slipped into sandals and the old cotton dress hanging on a peg by the bed, and out she went.
Sometimes, when nights were extra hot, she didn’t even bother with the dress. The darkness was dark enough that it didn’t make much difference and the hungry men she met in that darkness possessed little of nature and few of nature’s desires.
Tonight, the autumn moon was plump, and the wind was cold. Tonight, she wore everything she could get her hands on, which meant the dress, the sandals and a spider-web shabby shawl she had found in the street. She shivered. Maybe some good soul would pay in firewood.
Arabella paused before feeling her way along the wall to the door. She wiggled her toes, hearing the little whir of the two prosthetics on her left foot. Yes, the sandals were there. She ran hands trembling with hunger along her torso, over her hips, down to her thighs. The dress was there. She touched her shoulders and felt along her arms. She had not forgotten the shawl.
She slipped a hand into the top of the dress. The chain was there, the shiny stolen key warm and safe between her breasts. The key had cost her everything. Two of her broken ribs hadn’t healed properly after the black-eyed constable had beaten her, but she wouldn’t tell him where the key was hidden. Sometimes it still hurt when she breathed.
She had never experienced such pain until she took the key from the mind center one day, when the doctor’s back was turned, breaking the law for the first time in her life.
She had never been hungry. She had never been dirty. She had never been shameless or indecent. The key made her all of those things.
Arabella opened the door, admitting the tidal wind of the moon-swept night. Frosty blue illumination lay upon the streets and houses like a dusting of snow. It would be easy to find her way. It would be easy for the unnatural, half-robotic men to find her.
It would be hard to dodge the constable if he was in a mood to track her.
She walked, resisting the natural urge to draw the shawl more tightly about her goose-pimpled shoulders. She could not afford to bow to the cold and the wind. She could not afford to be weak.
Tonight’s ramble took her past the hissing, rusting serpent of the gas works on Pipe Street, across the deserted intersection of Street to the Market and Out Road and down toward Old Babel. Nothing moved but trash before the singing currents of wind. The only light came all the way from the blistering surface of the moon as it rolled about its celestial sphere while the immovable earth sat placidly in the center of the universe. There were no people.
Arabella turned her head and fixed her eyes upon the darkness of the ground as she passed the elementary school on Radius Lane. She could walk by without crying now, but she would never be able to look at the little square building with the peaked roof and rows of windows. The playground always overflowed with children for her, even in the deadest depth of night. If she didn’t look they might not call her name. If she did look...
She was being followed. The unmistakable whir of a prosthetic leg echoed quietly from the shadowed faces of the houses lining the black abyss of the street. The moon scurried behind a cloud edged in pearl. The dark got darker.
“I hear there’s a woman,” said a tentative voice from behind. She knew at once this was a first-timer. “Are... are you the woman?”
Arabella stopped and turned. “What do you want a woman for?” she asked, light as could be for a hungry cybernetic human shivering on a cold black street long after the end of the world.
“I want to... that is, I think...”
The moon returned.
“Miss Anthropol!” gasped the young man staring at the shapely woman dressed for summer in the middle of the autumn night. His iron face struggled to register its various shocks, but its range of expression was sadly limited.
Arabella looked into the twitching face, waiting while the appropriate section of her brain thawed the applicable memories. “Arn?” she asked. “Arn Yoth? Is that who you are? I thought you were away at the University of Dreams and Knowledge.”
“Yes, Miss Anthropol,” said the unblushing young man, for the art of blushing had been lost to humanity. “I’m a sophomore.” He would have sobbed with shame for her if only he knew how. “I had to come home to do something.”
That seemed to be all they could say to each other. Arabella was pretty sure she’d rather be dead than advertising her wares to her former grade-school student. Yoth was equally certain that he should not have left the house that night.
After a while, the young man overcame staggering obstacles to ask a simple question. “What happened?” he said.
“I couldn’t stop learning,” answered Arabella as if she had been waiting for the question. “I couldn’t ignore the wrong things. Think hard about what you learn, Arn. Think hard about where it leads.”
“We can’t think hard, Miss Anthropol,” said Arn. “You know we can’t. That’s why some of us come out at night.”
“That’s why I stole the key,” said Arabella.
This was shocking to the young man. The theft was a gigantic crime, severely punishable. In the soil of all the shock, a tiny shoot of admiration began to grow.
“You stole an interface key from the mind center?” he marveled. “How did you get the idea? How did you get away with it?” For a moment the young man forgot about the nice lady who had taught him the ABCs and the Earth-centered cosmology of the exhausted brown universe. His pulse pounded as he saw the way the moon edged her body in soft silvery light. His mouth was dry. “What have you learned?”
“What would you like to know?” she said.
The reality of what she dangled before him was too much for the young man. His ears rang in warning. Pressure built in the back of his head. He had to return to shallower waters. “Tell me your story, please,” he said, retreating to a cool, blank distance.
Arabella understood what was happening with the young man better than he understood it himself. She was happy to be patient with him, even if it meant going hungry.
“You already know how it starts,” she began. “One day the things we learn stop making sense. We have to ask questions. But there is a range. If we start to think or feel ‘out of range’ the brain interface restricts us, just as yours is doing now. Don’t be embarrassed, Arn,” she said sweetly, taking his hand. “It’s the same for everybody.”
It was hard for the young man to think, much less reply.
“I didn’t want to stay in range,” she went on. “I learned what I could about how the interfaces work. When I went to the mind center for an adjustment, I stole the doctor’s key so I could adjust my own interface and learn without interference.
“They knew I took it. They could never prove it, but they knew it. I was fired from teaching. I couldn’t get another job. Nobody was allowed to hire me. So I do this.”
Arabella turned her gleaming eyes upon him. “I’ll always be a teacher,” she said, “but now I have to teach things they don’t want taught.” She had both of his bone-crushing steely hands in her lovely little radiant hands. “Is there anything you want to learn?”
The young man’s teeth were clamped in a grotesque grimace. His head pounded so hard he saw stars. “Copper-kiss!” he said. “I’m a material philosophy m-m-major. They teach nothing but the Horror Genesis philosophy of origins, and it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense!
“A man called Copper-kiss said the earth isn’t the middle! Students ask in c-c-class. Professors laugh and throw them out! Tell me!”
He almost fainted as she took the key from between her breasts and gently slipped it into its slot in the brain interface blinking its red alarms on the back of his head. Relief overwhelmed him as the key made contact, neutralizing the punishing impulses. Joy and ecstasy washed across his deepest being as she found the optimal setting.
His mind was clear. He could learn.
“Nicolaus Copernicus was a scientist who studied stars and planets six hundred years before the Thousand Years’ Horror,” she began. “Observation and mathematics proved to him that the Earth revolves about the Sun...”
Ashy gray fingers grew in the east as the lesson ended. Copernicus opened too many doors to walk through in one night. They were cold and exhausted. They were happy.
Arabella reached for the key again. This time the young man watched with a different kind of interest.
“What are you doing?” he asked playfully. His untrained face would not let him smile, but maybe that would come someday.
“I have to restore the original setting,” she explained, slipping the key back into the slot. “You’ll keep the memory. You’ll add more. Some people teach themselves to think without using the key.”
“Arabella!” he said, almost crushing one of her warm, beautiful hands, his voice low and whispery. She had taken a pebble from the dam obstructing the stream of nature, and the current was swift and overwhelming. But the newness of the thing made him afraid, just as she knew it would. “I want... I... Thank you!”
She kissed his hand. She twisted the key and was sorry to see the magnificence of dragons returned to the darkness of slumber. She sent him home. Because he was young, he’d forgotten to bring her something for all her trouble.
Arabella started back up dim, gray Radius Lane. Her stomach was too empty to growl. Her beautiful little feet were numb. She could not control the chattering of her teeth. If she found garbage on the ground she was not sure she could stoop to pick it up without fainting...
Her downcast eyes found a pair of boots in her way, shining like perfect black mirrors.
“Stealing an interface key is a Class One offense.”
The constable! He had tracked her!
His midnight-blue uniform was perfectly starched and creased. The nightstick at his side was filled with lead. He was tall, straight and hard. Arabella knew how hard his fists were. She knew they were softer than his heart.
“A Class One offense carries the severest penalties,” he announced, “up to and including disconnection.”
“You can’t have the key!” she shouted, grabbing it with both hands, tearing the top of her threadbare dress. “You can’t!”
“Order must be maintained,” continued the constable. He took off his jacket. Hanging from his wide leather belt was the nightstick and manacles. “Without order, we return to the Horror.”
He placed the jacket over her shoulders. It was heavy. The inside was lined with fleece, soft and warm.
“You can’t have the key!” she screamed. She didn’t care who she woke up. “No! No! You can’t have it!”
“I didn’t ask for the key,” said the constable. There was bread in his hand. He gave it to her.
“I watched you and the boy,” he said as she ate. “I watched to collect evidence.”
“Leave him alone!” she cried, weak and desperate.
The constable continued, his icy black eyes fixed upon some remote point of warmth in distant space. “As I watched I began to feel something. I felt... embarrassed. I felt intrusive. I felt wrong.
“If you come to the jail later today, I will file a charge for sexual solicitation, a violation of an obsolete pre-Horror law,” he said, finding her eyes with his. “You will not have money for bail. You will have to stay in jail overnight. You will have food to eat and a warm place to sleep. I will see that you get clothing. In the morning, the charge will be dropped for lack of evidence.
“Everything will be in order,” assured the constable. “I will not ask about the key.”
“Because you are a beautiful and truthful woman,” answered the world-weary constable. Not even the mighty brain interface could filter the fatigue and sadness from the things that had travelled through the prism of those cold black eyes as his numberless years went on and on. “Because order must serve truth and beauty; otherwise order has no purpose. Because after seeing you with the boy, I’m sorry I beat you.”
“I’ll be there,” said Arabella quietly, taking off the jacket so she could give it back.
“Keep the jacket,” said the constable. “Give it back at the station. If you take it off, I’ll have to arrest you for indecency. Then you couldn’t hide the key.”
Arabella said nothing as she made her weary way back up Radius Lane. A few candles burned in the windows of the schoolhouse where teachers were beginning their day, the one in the window of the little room where she used to teach shining brightest of all. The ghostly children of the playground were happy as they smiled and waved.
The ramrod constable proceeded east on Radius Lane, keeping an eye on the indisputably rising sun. Could anyone really doubt that the sun circled the earth? he wondered.Could they? A man named Copernicus could. A beautiful and truthful woman could. A young man set on fire by love and knowledge could.
Maybe someday the icy-eyed beast of force and order could, too.
Copyright © 2015 by Harry Lang