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Kevin J. Anderson was a 2015 Hugo nominee, is the author of more than forty New York Times bestsellers, and has recently become a publisher at Wildfire Press. This is his third appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

When he’s not writing science fiction, Peart is the drummer and the primary lyricist for the band Rush.

WE GET WHAT WE DESERVE
The Pickpockets Tale
by
Kevin J. Anderson & Neil Peart

When you steal, what is stolen from you?

It was a necessary lesson, but not everyone learns a lesson in time—or at all.

I had been warned not to break into the old man’s house. The other pickpockets on the streets of Poseidon City were terrified of the place. “That old man is a necromancer,” one of them told me when I mentioned my plans. “He’s an evil alchemist. And dangerous.”

I laughed bravely, making the other boy feel like a fool. It is easy to laugh bravely when you are safe and far away . . . and before you do a stupid thing.

“The Watchmaker in Albion is an alchemist, and he has more gold than any person can imagine. So I hope the old man is an alchemist.” I narrowed my eyes. “You will all remember the name of Guerrero. Oh, you’ll never forget me!”

My friends were not laughing. “We’ll remember your name when we tell stories about what happened to you.”

I brushed them off and made my own plans to break into the necromancer’s house and rob him blind. I had been wanting to do that for a long time.

 

When I was just a boy, my father taught me how to steal, and he tried to teach me how to kill. He said I had great potential.

We were abandoned on the streets of Poseidon. My mother had died of a fever when I was but five years old—at least that’s what my father said. He thought I didn’t remember her, but I could recall my mother’s face very clearly. I remembered a screaming fight, her shouting at my father, calling him worthless, and then she had stormed off. She left me there with him, and I never saw her again.

I don’t remember her dying of any fever, but my father clung to that story with all the desperation of a broken man clutching his last few copper coins at the gambling table.

We lived on the streets, and I was always hungry. When I begged him for food, my father scowled at me. “If you want food, you have to hunt for it. Out in the wild there are predators and prey.” He gestured to the crowded marketplace, the inns, the small houses of working people, larger houses of merchants in the hills that rose from the harbor. “Everything around you is for the taking.”

He took me along the bustling streets, told me to keep my hands to myself but my eyes alert. “In the wild, a lion has to hunt his prey in order to eat. Do you want to be a lion, Guerrero?”

I didn’t feel like much of a lion with my empty stomach and my dirty clothes, but I nodded.

So he taught me how to hunt marks in the city. I had heard him complain that I was an impossible burden on him, but he learned how to make use of me too. He explained that some animals hunted alone, some hunted in packs. And we were a pack—him and me.

We would walk quietly together, studying the marketplace and the individual stalls. At first, because it was relatively safe, he would have me dart in and steal portyguls, pomegranates, or apples from Albion. I learned how to be fast and reckless. I could grab fruit and race away while the merchants bellowed after me (if they noticed me at all).

About half the time I got caught, and as I struggled and thrashed, sometimes dropping the fruit I had stolen, my father would come charging up, looking indignant and upset. “My boy, what have you done?” He would groan at all the onlookers. “Didn’t I teach you better than that?” He would strike me on the side of the head, graciously return the stolen fruit, and drag me away from the fuming merchant. “I’ll make him learn his lesson, believe me!” my father would growl, and we would get away with it.

And I did learn my lesson—I learned how to be more nimble and more adept at dodging pursuit.

If I escaped unscathed with my booty, we would meet in a prearranged alley. I’d hand him the fruit, and he would cut it into pieces, giving me my share, which was about a quarter of the take.

When my father needed to steal something more valuable, such as a stall vendor’s daily money chest or a metalworker’s jewelry, we used a different ploy. I would wander into the marketplace where jewelers sold gold chains or tourmaline pendants, pearls from the northern coast, fire opals from the alchemy mines. I’d wander in innocently, skipping along, then let myself grow confused. When I reached the proper spot, I would suddenly start wailing for my father. The “lost and panicked little boy” was an extremely effective diversion.

When the jewelers and the city patrol rushed to help the poor, terrified child, my father would snag a few gold chains or amethyst brooches. He showed restraint, taking only one or two amulets so the merchants didn’t even notice they’d been robbed, at least not right away.

We learned the underside of Poseidon City, hidden places that no one saw and no one knew about, except for people like us. There were abandoned buildings, empty basements, snug and sheltered alleys. Every night a different home.

“It’s because we are free, Guerrero,” my father said. “A new roof whenever we like, a warm home, and then we move on and find another.” I learned later that we had to keep moving to avoid being caught. The justice of the city patrol was swift and meted out with clubs.

We would look at the lighted rooms above the shops, where families lived in their permanent homes. My father would laugh at how they were caged, and how we were free. But I thought the houses looked nice. Part of me longed to have a place like that of our own, but my father cuffed me when I mentioned it. “I didn’t raise my son to be a fool. Worthless dreamers are prey, not lions.”

But he started to gaze at the private dwellings as well, the mansions in the hills, and his eyes held a new gleam. We paid attention to the houses of the merchants, the landlords, the city’s elite, and we resented the rich people who built extravagant dwellings and sprinkled gold on their food to flaunt how superior they were to people like us.

He grew excited when he learned that some of those mansions were unoccupied, filled with food and possessions that were left to gather dust while the landowners went to vacation in the countryside to lead decadent lives. Breaking into those houses was easier than stealing from marks on the street, with a far smaller risk of being caught. We would locate one of those empty homes, break a low window. I was still small enough and young enough to worm my way through the hole, then unlock the door and let my father in.

I remember that first house—I had never had such a feast! We ate salted ham, pickled eggs, cheeses, preserved fruit, honey, and smoked fish. My father found grime-encrusted bottles of wine so old he insisted they were valuable, so he opened one for himself and one for me, making me drink it. I don’t remember much beyond feeling awfully sick and him laughing at me as I vomited on the rich merchant’s sofa.

One looming house was set apart from the others on a steep slope—it looked ostentatious yet sinister, and as we watched night after night, we never saw more than one hooded light moving from room to room; occasionally, colored and stinking smokes wafted from rooftop vents. The house wasn’t empty, but it seemed to exude mystery.

I looked at it with curiosity and fear, hoping my father wouldn’t suggest we try to spend the night there. To me, the house looked haunted, or cursed. My father, however, looked at the mansion with avarice in his eyes.

We knew other street people like us—not friends, not colleagues, not even competition. They were a source of knowledge, however, and my father began asking them about the house. Most of them shuddered. “Dangerous, too dangerous! That man is a monster,” said one. “A wizard,” said another, while a third called the owner “an evil necromancer with magic prism eyes.”

My father was not frightened, though. He stared at that mansion with an increasing hunger, and I knew he would not let go.

He obtained a large sharp knife—stole it, no doubt, although he said he purchased it—and he got a smaller knife for me. After he gave me the blade, he took me to where we could look up at the supposed necromancer’s mansion. He said, “You’re not ready yet, Guerrero. I need to teach you the next thing.”

 

“You know how to steal, but it’s long past time you learn how to fight,” he said. “Because sometimes the prey fights back.”

I was scrappy, but fighting was never the preferable tactic because sometimes the prey might win. Sometimes a lion was killed.

For my deeper training, we preyed upon weaker people in the streets. We would linger behind taverns and strike men who were so drunk they could barely walk. We rolled them and stole from them, but most had already spent the bulk of their money in the tavern. My father robbed several of them to show me how it was done, and then he made me do it by myself. In the garbage of an alley they were easy pickings, and I didn’t see how this was preparing me to fight an evil necromancer (who was probably just an eccentric old man anyway).

Sometimes our targets yelled for help, and I learned to dodge and dash away, running with all my might before the city patrol came. Once, when I ran away with a disappointingly thin sack of coins, I bolted between buildings and emerged in a narrow side street with my father puffing to catch up. Unexpectedly, I ran into another gang of street kids who surrounded me—five of them—as if I had sprung a trap. They were predators too, hunting the weak, but these were a different kind of predator. Not lions. More like hyenas.

They reacted swiftly, viciously, when I burst in among them. Working together they grabbed me; one snatched the stolen coins out of my hand, and another shoved me against a brick wall, knocking the wind out of me.

“We’ve seen you,” said one of them. “Don’t like you.” He punched me in the stomach with the force of a battering ram. I doubled over, coughed and retched. They took turns hitting, slapping, slamming me against the bricks. I flailed, but could not land a blow. One punched me in the face, and blood poured into my eyes so I could barely see.

When I looked up, I saw my father come running up between the buildings. I knew I was saved. But as the boys kept beating on me, my father just watched.

After they had taken the few coins from me, I had nothing left for them to steal, and I provided little sport against five of them, so they eventually grew bored and went away, leaving me bleeding and groaning in the gutter.

My father stood over me, frowning in disappointment. I tried to speak through swollen lips, but there was too much blood in my mouth. I finally managed, “Why didn’t you help me?”

He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to my feet, despite my outcry of pain. I was sure several of my ribs were cracked. “You have to learn how to fight. Be a lion.” My father wasn’t sure I had learned my lesson, so he got even harder. “You have too many boundaries, Guerrero. We have to make them go away.”

I think he was looking for the right opportunity.

Several days later, we attacked a staggering sailor who wandered the wrong direction away from a tavern. He looked like a poor mark, not quite inebriated enough to make him defenseless, and he was larger than the two of us together, but my father pushed me forward, made me try to pick his pocket. The sailor fought back; he bellowed as I grabbed his money purse.

My father rushed in to join the fight. “Stop him from shouting!”

I saw a flash of steel—his large blade—which he plunged into the sailor’s side. The drunken man gasped and choked, initially in disbelief, and then the pain hammered into him. My father ripped the knife free and plunged it in again, higher, then withdrew and stabbed a third time. The sailor’s screams were hoarse now, mere gurgles. He slithered to the ground as I backed away in horror, but my father wasn’t finished; he was just building momentum. He pushed the sailor to the garbage on the ground and stabbed him more times than I could count. When the victim lay bloody and twitching, my father grabbed the money pouch and tossed it to me. When I caught it, blood got all over my hands.

“You . . . killed him,” I said, stupidly.

Sneering, he yanked my arm, and we ran away from the corpse. “And what do you think a lion does to his prey? He kills! That’s what you have to learn—be a hunter not a victim.”

When we were in an open street under a full moon sky, he grabbed me by the shoulder, turned me, and pointed up at the looming house of the necromancer. It still looked so tantalizing on the hill, a shadowy hulk with a glimmering light in one window. “There! Remember that. You have to learn to do anything for that.”

Our lives were focused toward that goal, but as he built the eccentric old man into a greater and greater nemesis, my father made my training harsher. Desperation leads to justifications.

Each day and with every scavenged or stolen meal, he reminded me that we were free, that we made up our own rules—but it was my father who made up the rules, and he forced me to do things that I did not wish to do.

After the third man he murdered in front of me, I realized that he liked using his large knife, and he egged me on, forcing me to draw my knife whenever we attacked, just in case I might need to use it.

On the last time, late at night, I was with him while he brooded, planned and grumbled, searching for a new victim. A thin man with a small valise left a shop and locked it, turning down an empty street. He was a tailor, I believe, not our usual victim, but my father grabbed him, dragged him into an alley. The man yelped. “I have nothing.” He flapped his hands, dropped his valise. “Take my papers, that’s all I own.”

My father didn’t want to believe him. “Hold your knife, Guerrero. Be ready.”

I drew the knife as instructed, not sure what my father wanted. “But he’s no threat to us.”

“Help me,” the tailor wailed.

My father let go of the victim and shoved me toward him. “Kill him—you have to kill him, Guerrero!”

The thin man cringed. I had the knife, but I froze. My arms were shaking. “No,” I said.

My father slapped me in the back of the head. “You have to kill him! He knows your name. He’ll call the city watch.”

But I’d had enough. I knew how to survive in Poseidon City, but I wasn’t sure how much longer I would survive living with my father.

“Kill him! Be a lion.”

I whirled with the knife and jabbed it at my father’s face instead. “You want to feel my claws?” I darted the blade back and forth, as I yelled to the tailor out of the side of my mouth. “Run!”

He scrambled out of the street, arms and legs bouncing like a scarecrow blown away in the wind.

My father reddened, and he grabbed for his own large knife, but I slashed with my dagger. This time the blade bit more than just the air. I sliced across his cheek, leaving a bright red line. He had taught me to steal and tried to teach me to kill, but I chose to be a coward rather than a murderer.

I jabbed my knife at him again, and he backed away, shocked. As he pressed his palm against his bleeding face, I fled. My father had said it many times before, but now I felt the difference. Now I was free. Now I was truly a lion.

 

I survived on the streets, as I knew how to do so well. I used what I had learned from my father, and also the opposite of what he had taught me. I never spent time with him again. Didn’t want to. Didn’t need to.

I made friends, shallow ones, because I didn’t know how to do anything else. Some friendships lasted months, some only a few days, but they were like bright burning stars. I left them when it became necessary. Fundamentally, though, I was alone—and meant to be that way.

I learned how to get what I wanted. I fought occasionally, but mostly I escaped. I was swift. I was clever. I was a survivor instead of a victor, and that was enough for me. Whenever I found a safe, empty house, I would slip inside, take from those who had too much, and use things that would never be missed.

But as the years passed, I kept looking at the old man’s house. My friends on the streets also avoided the place. They told stories that reinforced the fears my father had . . . but the wild and specific details were so similar that I realized they were simply repeating rumors my father himself had started. I laughed them off, because I knew the stories weren’t true, and I knew what sort of man my father was.

In time, though, I realized I would have to prove it—as another way to be free of my father. The mansion crouched on the hillside like a hoarder hunched over some ill-gotten treasure. It was a sinister intimidating place, and every night I saw that eerie glow wandering from window to window.

Then the necromancer’s house went mysteriously dark, empty, silent—for weeks. I watched for several more nights. A chill went down my spine as I made concrete plans, for it is a frightening thing when a fantasy becomes an actual possibility. The necromancer had vanished, or died, or maybe been trapped in some terrible misfire of a spell.

I had to make my move.

 

I chose my night carefully, waited for the dark of the moon, when the necromancer’s mansion was one looming architectural shadow. Holding my sharp knife and ready to fight, I broke in as I had done countless times at other homes, but this felt different. Infinitely different.

Dangerous . . . and tantalizing.

The gloom inside the mansion was oppressive, like a strangler’s silence, but as I crept forward I could see that this strange and mysterious man, whoever he was and whatever his powers, was as inconceivably wealthy as my father had claimed. That part of the legend at least was true.

Urns were filled with gems, as if for mere decoration. Gold glimmered from all furnishings; mirrors hung on the walls with gilded frames and blank pearlescent faces that looked like moonstone, rather than silvered glass. There were statues and candlesticks, many made of gold, but others of even rarer silver or platinum. Chandeliers hung from the arched ceilings, sparkling with memories of light that came from nowhere within the mansion itself. A polished marble fountain was filled not with trickling water, but with long quartz crystal prisms that showed rainbows in a spectrum of black.

With so much fabulous treasure, how could I be afraid? I could just grab an armload of gems and gold and run grinning into the night. But I didn’t. I should have known better.

Breathing fast, I climbed a wide river of stairs that flowed from the upper level. I should have grabbed an armful of treasure and fled, but that wasn’t why I had come. Though I resented him, my father had prepared me for this. If the evil wizard lunged out at me, I would stab him with the knife and dash away.

I moved cautiously, eyes alert, ready to run if I encountered some slavering monster or crimson-eyed litch intent on stealing my soul. I doubted I could fight a necromancer (if he was a necromancer, instead of just an eccentric old man).

When I reached the upper level I found an immense gallery with fountains and basins, empty frames on the walls that seemed to be waiting for portraits. And more mirrors, including one large looking glass on a stand. I heard a muffled voice, a desperate cry that seemed to come from far away.

The voice came from inside the looking glass.

As I stared, a figure appeared on the other side of the mirror, a kindly-looking old man with long gray hair and a voluminous gray beard. He was inside the reflecting pane, an image without an afterimage. “Help!” he said, but his cry was muffled through a thin pane of glass and however many dimensions there were between us.

I was startled. I wanted to grab coins, jewels, and golden candlesticks and run away, but curiosity got the best of me.

The old man pounded from behind the looking glass, and I heard only small vibrations. “Help! Please!” His eyes lit up when he saw me. “I’ve been trapped for so long.”

A lion would not run, no . . . but would a lion help?

 “Are you the necromancer?” I asked, holding up the knife as if to impress him.

A look of alarm crossed the old man’s face. “Is that what they call me? A magician, a sorcerer? I always thought of myself as a researcher in the arcane sciences. I constructed this mirror with alchemy, coated it with a sheen of quintessence, a recipe described in the most secret research from lost almanacs. The spell was designed for purity and hope, but something went wrong, and I became trapped in here. You must let me out. Only you can let me out.”

I was afraid to take a step closer, remembering all the wild stories I had been so quick to discount. On the streets, I knew when to run from a fight. “Why should I do that?”

Desperation leads to justifications. The old man said, “If you free me, you could have all my wealth.”

“You are in no position to bargain.” I faced the mirror, straight-backed and cocky. “If you’re trapped, I can take all your wealth anyway.”

His expression became somber. “But could you live with yourself?”

When you steal, what is stolen from you? I hadn’t learned that lesson yet.

I shrugged. “Probably. What does this mirror do?”

His voice remained distant. “It’s a reflecting glass designed to trap evil, to drain it from the person who gazes into it. It’s a cleansing spell, but I became trapped inside.” He reached out to the edge of the mirror. “Just take my hand, pull me out.”

The old man looked so desperate. His voice trembled. My father had painted him as a fearsome monster, and I felt I had to prove that he was wrong, as he had been wrong in so many other things. I was torn. Was I a lion? Was I prey? I steeled myself. I was human. And I wasn’t afraid.

Hesitant and skittish, ready to jump away if necessary, I reached out to touch the mirror at the point where the old man’s hand met the reflecting glass. “I can pull you out,” I said.

As my fingertips brushed the surface, though, it was as if I had popped the membrane of a soap bubble. His fingers folded around mine—and then the mirror glass folded around my hand as well. The necromancer’s grip became like a claw. “Or I can pull you in!

He seized me, refused to let go. With a rushing astral wind, I felt something being drained out of me, as if an artery of my soul had been severed and the mirror was siphoning off the evil parts inside me.

“Let go!” I struggled, dug in my heels, but some part of me was gushing into the mirror, pulled through to the other side of the reflection. The mirror was designed to steal a person’s evil . . . and it had stolen the entire presence of the necromancer. Now it was draining me. Would there be anything left on this side of the mirror?

I thrashed and yelled, not caring if anyone out in the streets heard the struggle.  The necromancer held tight, dragging me farther into the mirror.  My hand already felt dead, my bones and skin turned to ice. His grip was like a manacle far more secure than any wrist-shackles the Poseidon City guard used on a criminal.

I yelled and kicked. The tall mirror wobbled, but remained rooted to the floor. I could not break free, and I used all my strength to pull backward, to drag this evil man out into the real world again—or would that only be worse?

Dark rainbows flashed from the old necromancer’s eyes, and a wicked grin stretched his wrinkled face as he tugged harder, trying to draw me the rest of the way into the mirror. I felt weaker every second, diminished. My entire existence was being drained away, flooding to the wrong side of the reflection.

As I fought and yelled, I heard another muffled voice and twisted my head to see a second mirror hanging from the wall, a golden frame around a silvered moonstone glass. My father’s face was behind it—I could even see the scar on his cheek from where I had cut him. He pounded and cried out from far away, but he was lost inside the mirror—as I would be any minute now. My knees were already watery, trembling; my strength was waning.

“I am a lion!” I said in a ragged shout.

Somehow, I found the strength to lift my sharp knife. My hand had plunged inside the mirror, and the necromancer refused to release his grip. Crying out, not daring to think, I swung the knife down and hacked at my own wrist. It was the only way I could survive, before any more of my arm was pulled into the hellish looking glass. The sharp, bright lightning of pain gave me the strength to jerk harder, and the necromancer recoiled.  But it wasn’t enough. Another blow, and the pain was impossible, an explosion of brilliant agony through skin, tendon, bone. I don’t know how many more times I chopped before I fell backward into the room, collapsing onto the floor with my wrist spouting blood.

I crawled backward, reeling, unable to think. The old man, still trapped in the reflecting glass, howled—and my instinct was to flee screaming into the night. But I had to stop the bleeding, and I struggled out of my shirt, wrapped the sleeve around my wrist and pulled it tight, trying to cut off the flow.

When I got back to my feet, wanting only to lurch away, I knew I had one last thing to do.  Tucking my bloody arm against my chest, I used my good hand to grasp the frame of the looking glass, throwing my weight against it until I wrenched it off balance. The evil mirror fell face forward and shattered on the floor, breaking the trapped necromancer into a thousand sharp shards on the floor. I don’t know if it killed him or just imprisoned him there forever.

I was gray and sweaty, ready to collapse, but I had to get out of there.  Dripping blood and cradling the severed wrist, I staggered away.

From behind the mirror on the wall, I saw my father’s face, furious then wheedling. He pounded on the glass. “Free me!”

But I didn’t know how to do that, nor did I care to find out. If I shattered the mirror, it might kill him. Or maybe not.

Before I fainted, I drew a breath, swayed in front of him, and held up my bloody stump before the reflection. “You taught me, Father,” I said in a voice made hoarse from screaming. “I am a lion.”

When you steal, what is stolen from you?

I staggered down the steps and out of the necromancer’s mansion, unable to think straight, foolishly neglecting to take so much as a golden candlestick or any jewels from the fountains. I fled the evil place, barely able to stand upright because the pain was so great, leaving the echo of my father with all eternity to reflect on what it really meant to be trapped.

In a way I was more free than ever before.

Copyright © 2015 by Kevin J. Anderson & Neil Peart
 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
ZOMBIES ANONYMOUS
by Larry Hodges
GIOVANNI’S TREE
by Nick DiChario

THE WATERS AND THE WILD
by Mercedes Lackey
TO THEM WE ARE MERELY CLAY
by Liz Colter
WE GET WHAT WE DESERVE
by Kevin J. Anderson
and Neil Peart

IT’S NOT A PURPLE
PEOPLE EATER

by Marina J. Lostetter.

THE TORCHMAN’S TALE
by Edward M. Lerner
ELITES
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

WITHIN
by Fabio F. Centamore

FAREWELL MY SOLDIER, MY HUSBAND, MY LOVE
by Paul Eckheart
SCHERZO WITH TYRANNOSAUR
by Michael Swanwick

INTERVIEW
Robert Silverberg

by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
Double Star (Part 1)
=Heinlein's First Hugo Winner=
by Robert A. Heinlein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2017. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.