by K.A. Dean






The Third City drifted slowly across cresting water – a blue-green sheet of rippling shades, sunlight dancing – moving against the wind. A floating island of glass and gold and silver, frozen towers like ice, basking. Behind, left by the motion of the massive propellers beneath water’s surface, a faint trail of froth.

Spires of polished metal reached upward, fingers grasping at the elusive sun as it journeyed above through a crystal sky – a vertical expanse. The city was alone. In all directions the ocean stretched, unbroken and empty; endless.

Within its high gloss walls goliaths shouldered domes – miniature globes held in the hands of striding giants, perfect male and female forms carved from glass, glistening – high archways and columns topped with gardens and ponds, proud trees dwarfed into insignificance by the towering scale. Inside, visible through translucent walls, moving through labyrinthine innards, the citizens buzzed.

I wake from dreams in a cold sweat, tangled in sheets. I lie still, shrouded in the heavy darkness, and listen to my racing heart, waiting for it to settle; fading dreams hang over me like ghosts. The rumble of the engines, a constant companion, calms me.

The sound of my brother’s breathing is audible over the mechanical lullaby, slow and heavy. I roll onto my side and stare into the blackness. I shiver. My pillow is damp and stale, my sheets cling unpleasantly.

The room reeks, a familiar atmosphere of sweat, the scent of human bodies and old, lingering impressions of meals. I can make out the dim outline of the bedroom floor, piles of clothes and litter. I can hear the constant dripping of condensation from the ceiling. It ripples from one end of the room as false rain falls into puddles.

My stomach churns. I shift, legs kicking under the sheets in an attempt to untangle myself. I try not to think about the audition, about standing in front of the crowds, under scrutiny. I am to be examined like a germ under a microscope.

Mother insists I am wonderful, a blessing. She is expectant, hopeful. My success would mean so much. I picture the possibility, a chance to move up, beyond the sound and grease smell of the machinery that drives us; a chamber in the lower quarters, a route out – provided I am chosen, that I am good enough. I feel nauseous as I dwell on it, remembering what rests on me.

I force my mind to imagine the success. I might perform in one of the great rooms, my voice carried throughout the city. I imagine the chance to sing, to really sing, a chance to blossom in the music schools. I barely dare hope, the pain in my chest acute at such possibilities.

I imagine the chance to see and hear, in person, our guiding Voice. To hear, free from the crackle and echo and noise of our gutter dwelling, Him. The thought raises a smile, the purpose of dreams.

I hear mother before she enters, feet softly padding on the bare floor outside our room. The door creaks, a tired groan, as she pushes it open; the sound of water sloshing on the floor echoes like a vestigial sea. The blocked drain in the corner bubbles vocally as currents disturb it.

“Time to get up Harin. Today is the big day. Did you sleep well?” Her voice is quiet and eager, hushed but shrill, a slight waver.

I watch her silhouette in the dim, sepia light of the door. “As well, if not better, than I expected.”

I see her smile. “Good boy. Now, come have some breakfast, I’ve cooked you something special to set you off to a good chance. We’ve got to make sure you’re at your best.”

I try not to imagine failure.

All three of us assemble to head out; mother, me and Trac, my brother. He complains vocally about having to go; he doesn’t want to waste his day sitting in waiting rooms, watching me on stage, bored. Mother tells him that he’ll get to see the middle levels, one of the minor music halls. He’ll get to see the sky. This excites him.

I feel uncomfortable; my skin crawls. The guard at the gates to the vertical tram glares at us as we approach. His gaze is hard, a thin, lined mouth – a grimace, lines creasing a face well-used to the expression.  He stiffens.

“You got reason to travel?” He’s dismissive, he’s heard too many flimsy excuses from ‘our sort’, desperate, pleading.

“My son.” Mother reaches behind me to place a hand on my shoulder.

“He has an audition on surface four, the common music hall. He was chosen at the last selection.” Mother struggles to keep her voice calm.

“Name?” The guard snaps, he pulls a note pad from his pocket.

“Harin.” My throat feels dry, my voice is quiet.

The guard scans the list, running a finger over lines of text. He turns a page, his finger pauses. Looking up, he eyes me, then my mother, face fixed in the same expression.

“You can go up, you have six hours’ leave.”

We hold out our arms and the guard fixes the metal bands around our wrists, locking them on with the complex tool clipped to his belt. Only he, or another guard, can remove them. Vivid brown bracelets mark our status at the bottom; after six hours a constant, shrill alarm will sound.

Testing each with a tug, nodding once when he’s satisfied, the guard turns to open the door. We pass through, muttering our thanks. He ignores us, dismissing us with a single nod of his head before turning back to block the entrance. The door shuts behind us with an echoing clang.

We are alone as we wait for the vertical tram. The car arrives empty and we enter. The journey up takes just over twenty minutes. We travel in silence. My brother, sat in his seat, swings his legs. Mother keeps looking over to me, a broad smile, taking my hand to squeeze it. My stomach bubbles; I returned the smile each time.

The lift stops with a jerk, startling us. The lock on the door clicks off and we exit. I freeze, reach for my mother’s hand; I have never been beyond our level.

Through the clear walls I can see the sky and, painted a warped green by the glass, the sun. I squint against the brightness. I look around, see pedestrians staring at us, openly glaring, hard eyes with arms folded across chests. Others turn their heads as they walk past and give us a wide berth, only snapping their gaze away at the last moment.

Mother pulls me on. “Come on you two, no time to stand around staring. We’ve got to get to the music hall. Don’t want to be late now.”

We trot after her. Men and women in dusty uniforms, overalls and aprons, pause their work scrubbing floors, carrying baskets of damp linens and food, to watch us pass – their faces are masks of disdain.

I focus on the walls and ceilings, avoid eye contact. Crude murals, images of our city floating in the oceans, standing fast against smaller, lesser island states, are etched and painted onto the glass and metal. They are a visual narrative of exchanges, conflicts and combat – frozen scenes from our history, moments of pride, our rise to Third; remembrances of our victory over those who once stood over us.

The music hall is a plain building, the glass walls are frosted, the doors beaten bronze. The street outside is busy, families from the lower levels are entering, boys my age brought to audition. I recognise the expression they wear; wide eyes and faltering smiles.

I notice several families like us, dressed in little more than rags, all clearly tagged with brown wristbands. Others wear the yellow of manual labour, ruddy-cheeked parents with large, callused hands. Some wear the uniforms of the lower house servants, a sneer painted across their faces, seething fury and resentment at being forced to mix with us.

The music hall buzzes with voices, the foyer is crowed and hot. The decoration is simple but makes an impression on me; paintings of our great Voices are numerous. Along the walls I see the pipes that carry the sounds and songs. Boxes, junctions that connect wires and tubes, hum quietly. A hiss escapes at intervals; wisps of steam leave an oily taste in the air. I wonder what it would be like for those Byzantine mechanisms to carry my voice, for my song to become part of the city’s heart.

The Third City sails alone, a single speck on a vast expanse of constantly heaving water. It passes others, its sibling states, only rarely. Each is an island, isolated, hermetic. Beneath the water, shadows move. Chasing swarms of dancing silver, they break the surface to arc in the air, only to dive back and continue their hunt; leviathans, hidden in the deep.

At times, the cities dance, performing rituals – a semantic ballet of politics and prestige – exchanging gentle harmonies of rank and station over days of careful choreography. It’s peacock posturing, waltz-step preening. Bedecked in pomp, opulent shows of wealth and glory, lords and ladies on high balconies jeer and taunt – farm animals.

Young bucks challenge dominance in flurries of motion. Waves crash and the seas shudder, walls shatter in resonance. Noise clatters against fields that falter under assault.

On the horizon, Third City observes the gradual crawl of Seventh City. Seventh City slowly turns, circling round, its course changed and heading toward its sibling. Third City responds, turning and pulling around to face the lesser state, preparing for the dance. Crowds begin to form in the gardens and on the terraces; a rare spectacle.


I stare out at rows of seats that stretch out into darkness, beyond the reach of the lights that dazzle and blind me. The boy in the centre of the stage sings. He sounds good, well-practiced and taught. He sings only a few lines of his piece before the choirmaster calls out and tells him to stop. Instructed to leave the stage, the boy walks off, head low and shoulders slumped; the master’s decision doesn’t need to be stated.

He calls the next boy. The boy in front of me crosses the stage with reluctant steps, I can see his hands shaking; my stomach flips. He stops on the mark and waits for the instruction to begin. Before the choirmaster can command him, a noise breaks out at the back of the auditorium. I look but can see nothing beyond the first few rows.

I look down the line I wait in – I’m at the front now. I see faces staring forward at me, most of them turning their expression from me to avoid eye contact. They turn to stare out, attempting to see what is causing the commotion; the sound approaches.

“Oh my! This is an honour, the boys are blessed by your presence.” The choirmaster, his voice suddenly much softer and more pleasant than it has been, bustles out of his seat.

I see a small group moving down the central aisle, and I pale when I realise who it is – our great Voice, the Castrato lord. A bustling entourage of servants and doting gentry flutter around him, the lords and ladies fawning for his favour.

The ladies walk with parasols, in gowns of silk and lace, bound in elaborate corsets, slim-waisted beneath tight coats, their skirts billowing. The women sail in the fashion of the city; gliding. Gentlemen strut with canes in sophisticated long coats. Their chests are puffed in embroidered waistcoats over high-collared shirts with ruffled cuffs and necks, starched knee-length britches worn over white stockings. I hear the click of their leather shoes as they walk; show horses.

The Castrato waddles, his large frame moving with tired steps. His suit shimmers with bright threads and ornate needlework. His smooth cheeks are red, his brow damp.

He stops and the choirmaster rushes to him, exchanging quiet pleasantries and offering flattery. Servants rush to assemble his seat – a padded chair, broad and strong enough to support his mass.

“How are my boys?” Our Voice’s voice is soft, almost feminine, rich and thick, like sweet syrup.

I know my mother and brother, at the back of the room, waiting for my audition, must see him. I imagine mother’s face, white and trembling, to be in the presence our Voice – an honour.

“Not as well as we had hoped, even for boys of the lower castes. Not one so far has been of the standard we require. Would you do me and the boys the honour of viewing their performances?” The choirmaster bows his head.

The Castrato turns to assess us. I turn my face away and hide my wrist behind my back, attempting to shrink myself. As he looks down the line, turning his attention eventually to face the boy still on the mark in the centre of the stage, hands now clenched tight, knuckles white, I see an unsettling smile play across our Voice’s lips; his jowls wobble.

“Yes, I think I will.” As he sits, his seat groans; the assembled lords and ladies and servants flutter into seats on either side of him.


I am on the mark. I force my shoulders back and lift my head up. I hold my hands together in front of me. I can feel their eyes on me, but I refuse to look at them. I can see, out of the corner of my eye, the choirmaster and the gentry, their faces screwed and creased; I feel a flush on my cheeks.

I can see our Castrato reclined in the padded confines of his chair. His face is painted with an unnerving smile; a shiver runs up my spine. His forehead glistens under the lights, beaded with perspiration.

“Please begin.” The choirmaster’s voice is hard but not unkind.

I inhale and, stifling the quiver in my limbs, begin to sing. I focus on a point beyond the crowd and allow the pleasure of the music to quell the acid in my stomach. The other boys sang with polished voices, honed over lessons and by skilled tutors. I hope the lack of finesse does not show. I keep my chest calm and think of the times I have sung for my mother and brother, the pleasure I gave them. I open myself.

I picture my mother at the back of the hall, seeing perhaps my only performance on a stage as fine as this, a genuine music hall. My voice seems to benefit from the acoustics, a pleasing echo as it carries and reverberates.

My gaze darts to the choirmaster, his expression flickers, a faint smile and I feel my heart leap. I take confidence and continue. There is no objection raised, I am allowed to sing. It seems a long moment. I see our Voice studying me, his expression amused and intent. His cold grey eyes pin me.

As I reach the end of my piece, I realise I am the first boy to be allowed to finish. I finally chance to look out, to study the assembled audience. I see even the lords and ladies, bedecked in their finery, watching me, their expressions relaxed and almost pleased. I return one or two smiles, faltering.

“Come forward boy, to the front of the stage.” It is our Castrato; I obey the summons.

I peer out and, closer to the auditorium now, out of the harsh glare of the stage lights, appreciate the size of the room. I am glad I could not see before. I spot my mother and my brother. Mother is smiling at me, nodding her head. Her arms are wrapped around my brother who stands in front of her; even Trac is smiling.

“What is your name, boy?” The question is gentle.

Our Voice leans forward in his chair. His large, plump hands rest on his lap.

“Harin, my lord.” I stutter slightly and bow.

“And you are from the slums, Harin? The lowest decks?” My eyes flick to my mother; the question lacerates and I feel my throat close.

“Yes… yes my lord. We are from the bottom quarters.” I wait for the rejection.

“You have a natural gift, boy. Wouldn’t you agree, Rin?” Our Voice turns to the choirmaster.

The choirmaster turns from our Castrato to me, he is smiling, a faint expression, with hard eyes. “Yes. Absolutely, yes. The boy has a gift, precisely what we’re looking for. You know, Harin, boys like you are the reason we bother with these auditions. You have a place in the choir, well done.”

I cannot answer; my eyes sting. I look up and see my mother openly weeping, her joy clear even from where I stand.

I have only a small bag containing my clothes and the one keepsake of home – a toy my mother made me from scraps of her old dresses. Most of the boys come with large cases. Some, dressed in fine cloth jackets, wearing short trousers with long socks and polished leather shoes, come with large trunks pulled along on small wheels.

There are eleven new boys. Two others, Marl and Berin, are from the lower levels. The rest avoid us. We cluster in groups, huddles of peers. I can hear giggles and notice subtle pointing and nods.

We wait in the grounds outside the school. I rode here alone, said goodbye to mother and my brother at the doors to the vertical tram. There are no parents, the air feels tense; there is a nervous energy – adrenaline and pheromones. At the door to the school, two stewards stand watching us.

We are above the surface, midway up one of the low towers on the edge of the city. There is a view of the ocean and of fields below. I find myself captivated by the sight of the water, the iridescent surface stretching out to the edge of the world. The sun feels warm on my skin and the air is fresh, clean; the exposure induces a mild sense of panic.

The choirmaster emerges and stands in front of the door in black and grey robes. His face is stern and he holds his arms crossed across his chest. The noise of conversation dies and we all turn to face him.

“Welcome, boys. Now, if you will all gather your things, I will take you to your dormitory and we can begin your induction.” He forces a smile, the expression uncomfortable, his features crease in odd formations.

Our dormitory is large, with high ceilings and large windows that offer a view of the ocean on one side. Our beds are clean and comfortable. We are each given a side table and a footlocker to store our possessions. The room is tidy and well lit. Some of the other boys complain, as though the room is beneath them.

After we finish locking away the things we have brought from home, we are taken on a short tour of the school by three boys from the older class. They avoid talking to Marl, Berin and me; they pay no attention and say nothing as some of the others from our class jab at us with elbows, whispering cruel taunts.

Berin looks as though he is ready to cry and, seeing this, they focus on him until Marl and I make sure to walk on either side of him. I refuse to react as they taunt me, striking with sly fists and subtle kicks.

I sit in the second row from the front in our lecture hall. The boys who were taunting us sit further toward the back.

“Now, in order to impress on you boys the importance of the chorus, in the hope that this will incline you toward hard work, we give all new students a short lecture on the nature, role and mechanics of the melodies we will be teaching you.”

The choirmaster stands at the front of the hall before a large screen, onto which is projected images of the city, illustrations of the various acoustic mechanisms that are its life blood, schematics and diagrams of machinery. Many of the images are familiar, the networks of pipes and junctions that wind their way through the underground parts of the city are the same ornate pipes as in the music hall.

Our role, as the foundation around which the aggressive harmonies are woven, is emphasised. The complex fluctuations of chorus song are essential to generating a stable field, the strain on one voice too intense and the oscillations too low. I find myself filled with a warmth at the knowledge that I have been seen as capable of fulfilling such a vital role. It is the city’s acceptance.

After the lecture, we are taken to lunch. We eat in a long dining hall filled with the other members of the choir. The older years and the junior apprentices, who have graduated from the choir and begun solo careers, sit in the positions of rank.

Seated at the far end of the hall, near the masters’ tables, all but one of them ignores us. He makes a point of coming to talk to us, crossing the hall as boys at the other tables stare at him, turning to chatter and laugh amongst themselves – cruel whispers.

“Hi, welcome to the academy. I’m Yim, the Castrato’s study.” His voice is soft, his face almost pretty.

He makes eye contact with me and smiles before looking away; his smile feels genuine, eyes bright. “It can be a little hard settling in but once you’re used to the place it’s quite pleasant.”

He glances back to me briefly. “It gets easier, once you get to know each other and the routine.”

As he returns to his table several of the boys exchange hushed comments and laugh. I turn his words over in my head several times before turning back to my lunch. The food is good and plentiful but some of my companions disagree.

The Seventh City was smaller, the buildings less ornate, cubic by comparison to the soft curves of Third City, with hard, jutting angles and parallel lines against the sweeping wings and gentle arches of Third. Seventh City was purely functional. It moved with purpose, sleek and agile, its light mass enabling it to perform moves the larger cities could not. Its wake was a wide, foamy gash.

Third City moved with slow confidence, watching the smaller rival flash and posture. Taking the lead, Seventh retaliated with quick manoeuvres and close passes. As it swept back around the larger sibling, crowds heard each other’s cries; strange accents and patois were thrown across the narrow gaps. Flags were waved and insults hurled.

The Seventh was boisterous and ruthless, taking efficient steps to show its capability. In the eyries of towers and in roof gardens the aristocracy of Seventh giggled and gibed, titillated. Dressed in slim, fitted clothes, dark suits, starched and crisp, with sharp creases and formal ties, they lacked the ostentatious flourishes favoured by the citizens of Third City. Across canyons of steel and concrete, glass and silver, the well-dressed and gaudy lords and ladies of Third reciprocated, braying.

In the parks of the lower levels, on the plazas of the ground floor, the servants and labourers spat profanities. Drunken and boisterous, men and woman in uniforms and overalls vented at their rivals. Hate and bile and resentment fountained from normally quiet, servile mouths.

The practice hall is a large, cold space. It lacks the excess of the formal music hall in which I auditioned but it is clean and well kept. Along the walls and on the ceiling are the networks of wires and pipes, almost like capillaries, that seem to concentrate in the performance venues. In the centre of the ceiling, in front of the stage, they join, forming a single thick axon that snakes down to a circular control desk where the choirmaster sits with two technicians.

They watch faintly glowing screens, lines that stretch from the left of the screen to the right, flexing in response to our voices. Projected over a table at the front of the desk is a guttering blue field that brightens briefly before dying. The field erupts in bursts of intense light occasionally – blossoms of brilliant azure.

“Stop, stop, stop! Silence all of you…” The choirmaster stands and lifts his hand to quiet us while watching the monitor in front of him.

He raises his eyes to study the assembled choir. The entire academy is up on the stage, the whole choir assembled in rows. The older boys are to the back, looming; I am at the front with the other new boys. The choirmaster scans us, eyes flicking to the monitor briefly before looking back to us. They settle on me.

“Harin. You are disrupting the harmony, you need to restrain your natural tendencies, synchronise with the others.”

My cheeks feel suddenly hot, the room spins. There are voices behind and to the left of me, exchanged whispers. I can feel my heart beating in my chest, as though my ribs are attempting to strangle the pulsing organ – a cage.

“Boy! Harin!” I look up and see the choirmaster watching me.There is a smile on his lips, faint, a razor’s edge.

“Don’t feel embarrassed. You have a powerful voice, a natural gift. Learning to meld your voice with others to create a single melody can be difficult, more so when your voice tends to dominate. You’ll get there though, and the control you learn now will help you later.”

I feel myself smile. I look away and back to my feet again. I hear quiet giggles. I try to ignore them.

“Now, let us try once again from the beginning. Listen to your neighbours and let your voices merge. You are to become a single song, in many parts, all in harmony. Remember the basic field mechanics you’ve been taught. Try not to let the fact that we have a performance to show off our new class in less than a week make you nervous.” Looking back to the monitor, the choirmaster lifts his hand to indicate we begin.

As our voices begin to fill the rehearsal hall I focus on the blue glow that dims and brightens irregularly. I keep the choirmaster’s words in mind and control my breathing as I sing.

It is my second night in the dormitory. I miss my old bed, the stale smell of the sheets, the stagnant, earthy reek of the pooled water and open drains. I miss the sound of my brother’s wheezy breathing. I wonder, as I lie waiting for sleep to finally come, what their new quarters are like. I won’t get to see them until the end of the term.

Hushed voices carry from the far end of the dormitory. Most of the boys are clustered and laughing. Three of us are excluded; we make no attempt to join them.

I lie on my side in the half darkness. I remember the pale blue of the field, how it began to solidify as we progressed, voices weaving together as we became accustomed to each other. After the practice, out of sight of our tutors, I had been pushed from behind, falling and scraping my knees and palms. The boy who had pushed me was from the senior class. The boys in my year had walked past, looking back at me only to laugh.

Yim had stopped and helped me to my feet. He assured me that they would get bored eventually.

The cities danced – an engorged island of glass and polished metal moving with lazy confidence, an island of brutally angled steel and concrete, matte, flitting with arrogant brashness – an old ritual. Third City ignored the aggressive manoeuvres of its junior, moving with stubborn slowness, forcing Seventh to dart out of its path. Seventh retaliated, cutting through the water, turning sharply, throwing high waves against the walls of its elder. The impacts resounded like thunder.

Standing was at stake. The smaller city saw a chance to prove itself against a shambling rival, bloated and senile, while the larger refused to concede ground to an obnoxious adolescent. In the bowels of each, in the caverns carved into the rock islands on which the cities floated, massive engines hummed and throbbed.

It was a gladiatorial spectacle for citizens in clashing finery, reflections across the separating gulf of tribal excess. The crowds of Third City roared as the voices of Seventh fell quiet, a resentful hush closing on the grey canyons of the city. Sensing victory, the roar of Third City grew louder – a taunt as Seventh City’s movements grew slower, the dance dying.

Seventh’s sudden song drowned the cries of Third in a storm of melody. The sea boiled around the smaller city, the energy of the city’s music halls unleashed in one swift strike. The force of the blow sent cracks racing through the thick glass walls of Third City – mycelium decay spreading under the beating intensity of the echoing music – shards and splinters from towers plunged downward like deadly tears.

Third was unprepared. The island city reeled under the impacts of Seventh’s Castrato. Around it, water frothed. Silver fish rose to the surface, dead. The screams, vomited from the open mouths of the gathered crowds in the streets of Third City, were unheard, muted by the song.

I wake to the crack of thunder, the dormitory shaking and echoing. I can hear screams. The world is filtered through a haze of music, a soothing melody, a beautiful voice that burns and scours my mind. There is the brittle sound of fracturing glass.

I hear the doors open, thrown back, and turn to face them. The choirmaster is standing, robes hanging from his shoulders, limp and wet. “Boys! Up already, you are needed immediately in the music hall. The choir song is needed.”

The master is panting, barely dressed and hair wild. I can see his eyes darting. There is an explosion from somewhere behind him. It is distant but the room shakes in response. Faltering at first, growing quickly stronger, I hear a second song rise to challenge the first.

The choirmaster looks behind him before snapping back to face us. “Quickly now, boys. Our Voice can deflect the worst of it, but he will need your song if he is to retaliate.”

Some of the boys are already gathering at the door. I throw the sheets off and climb out of bed. Once we are all gathered, the choirmaster stands to the side and urges us down the corridor. We rush in silence to the music hall as he follows behind. The thunder has died down, less frequent now our song has been raised. Dust and debris is rattled loose from the ceiling above, the corridor straining under the stress of the combating songs.

Along the walls, the mechanisms carrying our defence and primary weapon pulse with a thrashing energy; the air fizzes with static. My heart is racing and my breathing is painful. I am half asleep. I try not to think about the importance of the choir.

The choirmaster pushes past us as we reach the hall and opens the door, holding it wide for us to pass, rushing us to take our places on the stage. Most of the other boys are already present, bustling up onto the stage and into position. I am at the back of the line, the last through the door. I try to hurry as the choirmaster gestures frantically.

I can smell ozone as I enter the hall; the air is dry and filled with fear. We push our way up onto the stage, eager to assemble. The choirmaster calls at us from behind to hurry. The floor is littered with lumps of reinforced glass – sharp edges like flint. There is little light. Spread across the walls like necrosis are dark networks of cracks, black fissures where chunks and large splinters have fallen free.

“Quickly boys, into position now, there’s no time to waste. We’ll start with…”

The voice of the choirmaster, standing just in front of the stage, is cut short. Sparks burst from one of the junction boxes above, showering the floor. I watch, frozen, as dagger-like shards erupt, blossoming from above – lethal rain.

Fire and ice falls amongst us; I close my eyes and hold my breath. I exhale after what feels like an age, my lungs screaming. I inhale as I open my eyes; the choirmaster is lying prone on the floor, dark fluid pools around him. There are bodies to either side of me, I can hear boys behind babbling, incoherent with panic. I hear the sound of sobbing.

I think of my mother as I listen to the songs. Behind the two battling voices that dominate, other themes evolve. I can hear and feel the tide of the conflict. We are losing, our Voice is struggling; without the choir we are lost. I think of my mother and brother, barely settled in the new quarters I have yet to see. I breathe deeply, tasting the bitter tang of smoke.

I start to sing, my voice singular, strangled by a serpent that seethes in my lungs – it is the only song I can remember. My voice struggles to fill the hall. I am not even sure that the necessary mechanisms have survived intact. I try to force my breathing to calm, and listen only to my voice. I cling to my song.

In the pooled shadows in the centre of the hall, the dark circle of the abandoned desk, a light flickers. A blue field arcs briefly, shuddering. It dies. I keep singing, I push harder. There is a clatter of conflicting melodies above and around me, they grow violent and storm. I hear the whisper of the city’s systems; hisses and gasps escape from junction boxes, the mechanisms struggling to convert my song.

From behind, other voices join me, nervous and wavering at first but growing in surety. I listen to them and respond, allowing my voice to mix with theirs. They respond and we weave; the field above the console flickers again. It grows bright before dimming, but does not extinguish completely.

Others join us and follow me. I find myself leading the song. I focus on the dim field of pale blue – a summer sky. I focus on how it responds to my song, to our song. I let it lead me and I, in turn, lead the choir. The field grows bolder and holds.

As the field solidifies into an absolute, the hall glowing pale blue, spectral, I see light flicker along the axon from the desk. Luminescent blood, pumped upward, spreading outward as our song is carried away. I hear the music of the city change. Our Voice grows stronger as the other fades, dying as it is filtered through our field.

I hear our Voice grow in passion, his energy resonating through the bones of the city as it attacks. Supported by us, he turns, free to manoeuvre. I hear the elegance and dexterity in his song, I learn from it, study his song, weave it into my own. The field glows brighter; the chorus follows me.

Third City limped – crystalline forms fractured, the engines whining, injured, crowds screaming – as the Seventh shuddered under its song. Concrete fell like dry skin from cracked hands in winter winds, and the smaller city whimpered. Their song, unable to penetrate the shield of the larger state, turned on itself. Melodies crumbled, pierced.

Defeated, Seventh retreated with clumsy manoeuvres as though concussed; bloody crowds in the streets of Third roared, victorious, from behind a screen of flickering blue haze. The song of Third, grown bold, lashed out, an emotive chorus of glory. The sea thrummed with the resonating hymn. White-crested waves spread out from Third City, a carved slash chasing Seventh.

A trail of dark grey tainted the clear blue above as Seventh fled, smouldering. Third was left wounded, floating alone in the calming ocean. Their song faded, the surrounding shields flickering out. Silence returned, mournful. The crowds dispersed. Glass streets, littered with splinters of crystal and shards of polished metal, were hushed. Only the cries of the injured broke the solemn spell.

I sit on the stage, exhausted and shivering, suddenly cold and nauseous. I sip at the warm, sweet tea the matron handed me. I am wrapped in a coarse blanket, sat with several other boys. We watch vacantly as nurses tend to the injured. I was fortunate, it’s just a minor graze. Others were not so lucky. The matrons remove the dead beneath sheets, white linen stained with dark patches of claret.

I look around, searching the crowd for faces I recognise. I hear a commotion at the doors to the hall, see a small crowd push past the matrons attempting to bar entry. My mother is among them. My vision blurs as she rushes to me, I feel a knot in my stomach untangle. I stand to embrace her; she hugs me. I can feel her uneven breath and beating heart.

“Harin… when I heard about the choir’s hall I feared… I am glad you are safe.”

I content myself to hug her. She smells different. The earthy smell of my old home has been replaced by an aroma of engine grease. She has moved up. I pull back and look at her. She looks healthier.

“I am fine, mother. No injuries. And Trac? How is he?”

“Your brother is fine, I left him at home to help. He is uninjured but… there are many casualties in our section.”

“How is the new home?”

Mother makes as though to answer, but a noise from the back of the hall causes her to turn before she speaks. I look around her to see a well-dressed crowd entering. The matrons separate to allow entry, clearing a wide path. In the middle of the assembly, puffing with exhaustion, his cheeks flushed, I see our Castrato.

He pushes his way through the buzzing gentry who fawn and praise him, doting and flattering over his performance. He moves immediately toward the stage. His steps are clumsy and tired.

“Where is he? I want to see the boy.” He climbs the stairs to the stage awkwardly, stands at the front and shouts, barking.

I look around, the other boys are staring at me. They say nothing and look at the ground to avoid eye contact. Our Voice follows their line of sight and sees me. He breaks into a smile and I feel my stomach turn cold.

“You. Harin, wasn’t it? It was you? The voice that raised the choir song?” He walks toward me and stops in front of me.

I am unsure what to say. My mother stands behind me and squeezes my shoulder, I can feel her nerves through her shaking hand. The crowd of lords and ladies bustles up onto the stage and assembles the seat behind our Castrato. They urge him to sit, to rest.

He obliges, sits, and looks back to me. “You have no reason to worry, boy. Be honest and answer me. Was the voice you? Did you raise the choir?”

I nod – I am unable to speak. Our Voice laughs, claps his hands together and his smile broadens. “Marvellous. You have a rare gift, boy.”

Our Castrato leans forward, he lifts his hand to my cheek. He strokes my cheek with his thumb, cupping my face with his palm. He smells of perfumed hand cream, his flesh is sweaty and cold. I stifle the urge to pull away.

“I am in need of a new apprentice. An unfortunate outcome of the attack, poor Yim… but still, even if that were not the case, your voice would highlight you for great things.” I can see the other boys staring at me with hard expressions.

As I catch their eyes they look away from me – another barrier between us.

“What do you say Harin? It would be an immense honour for your family. Quarters above ground with a view of the sea, and you’d be taught by me personally. You’d be trained to be the next Voice of the city. There is no higher honour.”

I can feel my mother behind me, her fingers dig deep into the flesh of my shoulder. A view of the sea, her son the city’s Voice; I have no choice. I nod, force a smile.

“Excellent.” Our Voice takes my left hand in his right and squeezes.

“Now, the medical facilities will be busy for the next few days, but, we’ll be able to schedule your surgery within the week, I’m sure.”

I see and hear and feel the lords and ladies congratulate me. They tell my mother how proud she must be, offer me words of praise. I am numb to it.

Copyright © 2012 by K.A. Dean

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K.A. Dean

Kevin A. Dean is a working scientist who bakes, brews and watches far too many movies. He attempts to squeeze all of this in between periods of writing, an addiction he is apparently unable to kick. He lives in the south-east of England with two cats and a human. Sometimes there is coffee; sometimes there is tea. This is his second

work of published fiction.

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