io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds
The monkeys are white-faced capuchins. Small things, their lean, black-furred bodies stand in stark contrast to the white tufts of their faces and shoulders. The Russians have cannons that can blast an airship apart in ten minutes andclou armored steam knights called kolotar, but of the many dangers I face on a warship a mile above the Black Sea, I fear the monkeys I tend most.
“Do not tarry,” a man whispers behind me. “They eat meat as well, boy.”
I bow curtly but cannot bear to face the organ grinder. “Yes, Efendim.”
The organ grinder haunts my dreams. The organ grinder keeps his neck, his face, his bald head covered in white make-up. His face is pock marked. In my dreams, his incisors are as pronounced as the monkeys. His eyes are like theirs, shiny and black and accusing. The dream ends when he grinds his organ and the white-faced capuchins descend upon me from all sides.
When I enter their cage, a large communal one made of chicken wire in the hold of the ship, they don’t howl or bite or throw feces. They do not move when I replenish their water. Even now, as I fill their trough with dates, figs, and seeds, they stand still. They stare at me with gleaming black eyes, silently as if in judgment. I turn to see if the organ grinder is satisfied, but he is gone.
I head up to the deck where I’m greeted by the sound of distant thunder. I look to the North toward Crimea. Artillery fire dances in red and white flashes on the night horizon.
Times such as these, I wish the seven months until Ramadan to have already come and gone. I will be fifteen then, a man, and I will no longer tremble in fear when I see cannons fire or hear explosions. The soldiers on deck continue to work as if it is merely thunder and lightning on the horizon, a distant storm of little consequence. They are dressed for battle in their navy blue coats, black boots, and crimson Cossack pants. Matching the pants, a red fez sits atop their heads, the black tassels bouncing to and fro as they work.
Some soldiers ready the sails. Others check the ballast tanks, which raise and lower the airship quickly. The ship lurches, sways like a wandering drunk, before swinging toward the distant conflict. Near the stern, four soldiers swivel giant brass tubes, horn-shaped like ear trumpets. They are the intake pipes, made to gulp the wind and swallow it below deck, where the belly eats it up and makes energy.
Behind us, beyond the stern, well beyond my eyesight, lies Istanbul.
A weight settles on my shoulder. I look down to see fingers of shiny brass, knuckles of gleaming silver. A black suit jacket hides any metal past the wrist. I fight the urge to shy away from the touch and force myself to meet the eyes of the galvanizer Adnan.
His face is clean-shaven except for a thick mustache he keeps well oiled and curved upwards at the tips. His eyes are kind behind his wire-rimmed glasses.
“Best to think of no other home than the Kismet, at least for now,” Adnan says. Gently, he guides me around to face the ship’s bow, our immediate future. The violent stabs of red and white light have grown closer.
“This will be your second skirmish, yes?” he asks.
The metal hand moves away from my shoulder and fishes into his jacket. It pulls out a silver cigarette case, and the other hand, the one of normal flesh, retrieves a cigarette.
“Steel yourself, young Oz,” he says after he lights it. He draws the tobacco long and lovingly before exhaling a thick cloud for the wind to take. He offers me the cigarette. “Face what’s to come topside. Below deck with my engine and pipe works is not your place.”
I hid from my first skirmish. In a corner of the deserted monkey cage, far away from the roar of artillery and the unholy wail of the organ, I huddled. My cowardice earned me boxed ears and a bloodied nose from the organ grinder along with the threat that next time he would hurl me over the side.
I take the cigarette eagerly. “Thank you,” I say before my first pull. Adnan nods and walks away, letting me have the whole thing. He heads below deck to tend to the steam engine. I inhale as if I’m preparing to jump into cold water.
The explosions punctuating the air make me flinch. They have owners now. In the distance below us, two naval ships, both ironclad destroyers, trade barbs. Flags of the Russians and our allies the British are clearly visible. Black smoke roils out of the English ship.
“Ozan!” I hear the organ grinder before I see him. He emerges from below deck like a rising ghost, only his powder-white head visible as he fixes his gaze upon me. I stand at attention and nod. He continues to climb up, bearing his organ strapped to his chest.
The organ is a box of oiled mahogany wider than the organ grinder’s stout body. Unlike most organs, the brass pipes in the front are not straight like columns but protrude outward, curving upward in strange angles. The pipes end in ragged edges, the jaw line of a monster. The crank on the side is dull, gray iron.
“Don’t stand idle, boy. Our time approaches. Fetch my songbook. And open the cage.”
His songbook is in truth a wooden bin the size of a tea chest. He keeps it under the bed in his quarters. I head there first despite the cage being closer and struggle to carry the heavy contraption with me to the monkeys. The capuchins stand and stare, their black eyes follow me as I approach the latch. I unbolt the door and let it fall open.
One capuchin screeches. It is a shrill sound—-eeee, eeee, eeee—-repetitive, rising in pitch and urgency like a siren or a baby crying. Another follows. I flee with the songbook as a third and fourth give voice to a growing cacophony of shrieks.
Above deck, the air is afire. The Russians are lobbing methane grenades at us while they bring their artillery to bear. Green and yellow blasts punch the sky on the ship’s starboard side. I nearly drop the chest as shrapnel whizzes by my ear. We have descended into grappling range.
“Come, boy,” the organ grinder says. Standing brazenly at the edge of the deck closest to the Russians, his eyes dance in the light of the blasts. “Give me ‘The March of the Janissaries.’” He flips the lid of the organ.
I nearly stumble as I scramble to him with the songbook. Inside the chest are a dozen rectangular copper plates. Words have been etched crudely into the side of each, giving the plates names such as “Whirl of the Dervish” and “The Sultan’s Suicide.” I reach in and give him the proper plate.
The deck shakes; all other sound is muted as our six starboard cannons fire wicked harpoons. Attached to the harpoons are giant chains. Three harpoons punch through the hull of the Russian ironclad. Our airship jerks as the chains go taut.
The Russian guns are still swinging skyward and nearly have us sighted. These cannons have caused the iron-hulled British vessel to belch black clouds. I imagine what they would do to our hull of wood.
The organ grinder slides the copper plate into his organ and closes the lid. He turns the cranks slow at first as if he is fighting it. Faster, now faster, “The March of the Janissaries” fills the air like the keening wail of a thousand grieving mothers.
The monkeys burst from the hold, a faceless black tide with brief flashes of white. They rush around us, past and over the organ grinder and me. I feel a million cold hands. They speed past so fast they sound like a crowd shushing me. Shhh . . . shhh.
They spread beyond us, onto the chains, where they stream down to the ironclad ship. The black furred bodies seem like oil spilling down the three chains, like the dark fingers of Şeytan.
It is impossible to see what is happening under that cover of black fur, but I hear men screaming. They scream over the cacophonous screech of the monkeys, over the relentless howl of the organ as it grinds through the “March of the Janissaries.” The only things louder are the methane grenades, exploding in odd bursts on the ship below.
The Russian cannons, now trained on us, never fire.
When the organ stops all is silent. The ballasts hiss steam as we descend close enough to the Russians to drop the gangway onto their deck.
The organ grinder pulls the plate from the organ and hands it to me. “Return my songbook. Then go and see the galvanizer. Tell him to suit you for collection.”
When I reach the engine room, Adnan greets me with a smile. “Survived being topside, I see.”
I nod. His engine room is a maze of pipes, valves, and gauges. A workbench cluttered with tools, strange vials, and odd, gear-heavy knickknacks dominates the middle of the room. He digs in a corner and produces what appears to be a laundry bin—-burlap fabric placed within a framework of metal rods.
“You are starting to contribute here,” he says as he pulls dangling straps and buckles to fasten the burlap device to my chest. “A good change from being a street urchin, yes?” he asks.
The homeless no longer exist in Istanbul. The sultan’s gendarmerie had swept through the streets, the alleys, the abandoned buildings serving as opium dens. They corralled us into the gardens facing the Blue Mosque. The commander of the gendarmerie stood upon a dais overseeing all as we were shoved and wrangled and herded. On one side of the gardens stood the Blue Mosque, on the other the Aya Sofya, both domes as grand as the two fists of god, while we, the city’s wretches, were pressed in between. The gendarmerie commander spoke to us through a speaking trumpet mounted on the dais.
“You are called homeless, but this is not true. Your home is here. It is our Empire. The Ottoman motherland calls upon you all to fight for her.”
The ones who couldn’t fight—-the old, the crippled, the crazy—-they sent off to work. Mining coal or shoveling it into airships and trains and steamboats. Women were sent to the factories. Waifs like me were given menial odd jobs.
“You prefer this to being a street urchin?” Adnan repeats his question.
“I eat more.” I do not know how else to answer.
He smiles. “Go then. Earn your bread.”
Instead of bread, I earn a smack on the head from the organ grinder. He shakes a meaty finger in my face.
“Never dawdle after ‘The March of the Janissaries.’ Our friends will be at their most tired. They will need us. Now follow.”
We proceed down the gangway. The Russian deck is a spent battleground, a home to bleeding, broken corpses. Two dozen living capuchins crouch all around the deck. Their eyes are wide as if they are surprised or scared. The monkeys sweat, I know this, yet their mouths are open as if they are panting. In the background, the smoking British ship steers closer.
“The Brits will want to salvage parts,” the organ grinder says. “We must clear the ship before they come. It will not be good for them.”
The organ grinder brandishes a knife. Without pause or ceremony, he cuts across his own thumb. He walks over to the first capuchin and puts the bleeding thumb into the monkey’s open mouth.
The capuchin suckles for the briefest moment. Then it bounds up the gangway, back to the airship. The organ grinder heads to the next monkey and repeats the process.
“How?” I ask. He does not explain what dark magic drives this. Silence kept, he stops and crouches at the body of a dead capuchin. The look in his eyes is one of loss and regret. He gives his bleeding thumb a squeeze, forces a drop of blood out onto the capuchin’s white furred head. He picks the monkey up and places it into the burlap sack on my chest.
“That is how you give them rest,” he says.
Before I acknowledge, he grabs my wrist and pulls me toward him, toward his knife. I suck in breath sharply as the knife slides along my thumb to open it.
“Do as I’ve shown you.” He hurries through the waste, heading to the stairs where he descends below deck.
I step between dead Russians and their dropped rifles, sending the monkeys back to the airship or gathering them into the sack. The price for either action is blood. I prefer sending them back, even if the sensation is strange—-feeling the pull of their mouths, seeing their eyes soften as if they’ve found their mother. The sack bulges and is getting heavier. Their blood has soaked through the bottom, the brown burlap now stained burgundy, and is starting to drip.
The last dead monkey I have to pry from the grip of a Russian who crushed its ribs while the animal ate through the sailor’s throat. I look around the deck, searching for capuchins even though I already know they have all either been sent home or given rest. The stairs leading below deck seem like an entry into hell. There is nothing left here but dead men and the dark maw descending down, but I cannot bring myself to take even one step toward the stairs.
Abruptly, the organ grinder emerges from the dark staircase. Urgency is in his step and concern is in his eyes. He carries in his arms a capuchin neither dead nor whole. It has lost an arm.
He doesn’t tell me to follow him. I simply do. We rush back to the airship and head below deck to the engine room. He presents the broken capuchin to Adnan with both hands as if it’s a present.
“Make him as yourself, galvanizer.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“He dies while you wonder. Do it, Adnan.”
Adnan wipes a grease smear from his brow. “Are you sure, Hezarfen? It will be large. Crude. This may not be what you envision.”
The organ grinder only nods.
“I will need parts to study.”
Again, he nods. The organ grinder turns to me. He removes the collection harness with its nearly full sack and thrusts a new burlap bag into my hands. “Below deck,” he says.
“You have parts right there,” I protest, pointing at the sack of dead monkeys I had to bear.
His eyes bulge in disbelief. “Do you not know the meaning of rest, the rest we swore in blood to provide?” I’m unsure whether my impertinence to talk back has surprised him or my ill regard for the blood markings. One thing I do not mistake behind his eyes is the cold anger.
“Below deck,” I repeat his order and back out of the room.
I return to the defeated ship. The British are extending their gangway, assisted by some of the Turkish soldiers on the ironclad’s deck. Other soldiers are checking the pockets of the dead and inspecting their rifles. The stairs leading below deck still seems like an open mouth, ready to swallow me whole. I take a deep breath and descend.
The ship’s interior is a mixture of shredded men and monkeys. This is where the methane grenades exploded when the capuchins attacked the ship. I avoid looking at much beyond my own feet as I walk through the carnage. I collect animal parts: arms, legs, fingers, heads. Eventually my own hands stop trembling about the time my sack is three quarters full.
The organ grinder is nowhere to be found when I return to the airship’s engine room. The injured monkey is on a gurney, tubes of clear liquid snaked into its only arm as it lay fast asleep. Adnan is looking over gear shafts, cogs, and various pipe fittings, all of them small. I drop the sack of animal parts at Adnan’s feet, hateful that the organ grinder forced me to collect such things for the galvanizer’s sake.
“Earn my damned bread, you say. Has this earned it?”
Adnan absentmindedly nods as he turns a gear over in careful inspection. It is clear his mind is elsewhere. More words thrown at him would be pointless. Besides, what is left to say?
Though I eat more on the ship than the streets, no one would be able to tell tonight. I sleep even less.
Three days later, I see the monkey. He is in the cage with the others. The metal arm is small for a child but huge on the capuchin. It is home to turning gears in the forearm and pistons that push along the bicep. Yellow pus oozes out of the shoulder where swollen meat and rigid metal mesh.
The other monkeys give him a wide berth. I wonder if the normal capuchins feel the way the soldiers feel about Adnan, who they have nicknamed “Yarim” for half man. Does cleaving onto cold metal cut away your essence as the soldiers say? Do the other capuchins consider their metal-armed fellow soulless now?
While the other monkeys stare at me with their accusing eyes, the metal-armed one takes a step towards me. I take two steps back. It stops, but I keep going, keep retreating out of the monkey cage. I make my way around the cage, staring at the monkey, rushing to get back on deck. I bump into the organ grinder violently. His girth sends me backward on the floor.
He is all white powder, cunning eyes, red lips, and smiles. Instead of helping me up, he leans down to me.
“What is your name for him?” the organ grinder whispers.
“I have none, Efendim.”
“Don’t lie. Say the name.”
I shake my head. There is naught. It is a monster. It is abomination among monsters. There is no name.
The organ grinder grabs me by my collar and hoists me up. He pulls me towards the cage door. The monkeys begin to screech, all of them except the metal one. I struggle against the pull, but his hand is firm. The other hand fumbles at the latch. The cage swings open wide. Throughout the cage, the monkeys jump and screech.
“Say the name to me or spend the night telling it to him!” the organ grinder yells. He drags me forward.
“Ruhsiz!” I cry. “Ruhsiz!”
The organ grinder lets go of me. He grabs the cage and shuts it. “Your name for him is ‘Soulless,’ eh?” He shakes his head as he looks at the monkey. “His name used to be Ali. Let it now be Ruhsiz. It suits him.”
The organ grinder says nothing more. He simply stares into the cage and it seems I am forgotten about. I flee, but not without a final look at the monkey I have named.
I hope with all my being this named creature does not survive the next skirmish. It does. The battle is a quick one against a patrol scout airship. Their ship is lighter, faster, and equipped with deadly cannons that shoot bombs. The bombs explode in clusters, which rip into our hull and send four soldiers plummeting to their doom in a violent spray of wood and gore. We are fortunate when two harpoons catch their hull.
The organ grinder plays “Whirl of the Dervish” and the capuchins rush across the chains, ignoring the Russian soldiers to tear at the sails, the engine, and ballast tanks. In minutes, their engines die and the ship lists in the sky helpless. The air is punctuated with the screams of men who cannot hold on as their ship falls sideways and swings beneath our ship, held up in the sky only by our harpoon chains.
They surrender after that. When our men set them down in the Black Sea to capture the prisoners and scavenge their ship, the organ grinder and I are among the first to go aboard to retrieve the monkeys. Ruhsiz stares at me with black eyes and open mouth. The organ grinder’s knife opens the same wound across my thumb.
“You name him, you nurse him,” he says.
The pull of Ruhsiz’s mouth is the same as other capuchins, his retreat back into our airship identical. And while only three monkeys make my burlap sack, somehow, as if to mock my prayers, another monkey comes away not quite whole. Both its hands have been crushed, a result of the engine’s moving parts snapping shut while the monkey was sabotaging it.
The organ grinder carries the broken monkey lovingly to Adnan. Like last time, Adnan fits the capuchin with oversized metal mockeries of what was once flesh. And days later, the organ grinder glares at the monkey’s two large bronze hands through the chicken wire of the cage.
“And what do you name this one?”
The monkey stands next to Ruhsiz. “Clapper,” I say.
“So that’s it then,” he says. “Clapper.” He chews on the name as if it is spoiled rations.
To quell any doubt that my prayers are being mocked, this happens again the next skirmish. We ambush an enemy coal freighter getting tossed by an angry sea in the dark of night. The monkeys move in deadly stealth and darkness under the faint, ghostly croon of “The Harem Girl’s Secret Kiss.” There are no casualties among us, only one monkey with one less leg and a new name: Luckless. It is a reflection of how I feel about my own fortunes.
In truth, it is the fortune of everyone aboard the Kismet. A merry soldier drinking chai and playing backgammon during empty afternoon hours is hurled off deck that same night when an intake valve backfires. Men with wives and children are blown apart by enemy fire, to be mourned by their fellows who still live despite never having anything to live for. One of the officers disappears completely, leaving nothing but rumors that he was eaten by the monkeys or dove that mile into the sea to escape his recurring dreams of being dangled from the airship called Voina Gulag.
The monkey I named Ruhsiz shows grim signs his fortunes are turning. He has little energy and seems to drag the metal arm to and from the feeding trough. Soon he stops dragging it altogether and just lies on the straw floor where the arm seems a monstrous anchor. I bring figs and dates to him so he can eat. Eventually he stops doing even that. Until one unremarkable evening, he dies.
I take the monkey’s body to the organ grinder’s quarters. His door is ajar. The man sits before a mirror, his back turned to me, removing his make-up with a handkerchief. The white powder on his neck and head is gone from his face. Our gazes meet in the mirror. There are a great many bags under his eyes. He looks old without the makeup, feeble and reduced. He looks at what I hold in my hands with tired eyes.
“Rip the arm off and give it back to the galvanizer. Then throw him over the side.”
“He needs the blood sacrament.”
“One named ‘Soulless’ has no need for burial rites. Toss him.”
On the open deck, under a clear night of bright stars, I give Ruhsiz the blood sacrament anyway, cutting my thumb across a jagged edge of the capuchin’s hulkish metal arm. I dot his white furred head with a drop of my blood and guide him out of my hands, metal arm and all, to the cool peace of the Black Sea waiting far below.
Hezarfen the organ grinder can go to hell. And if one such as Adnan cannot abide with losing the parts joined to the capuchin, he can join Hezarfen.
Adnan makes no mention of it the next time I see him. We enjoy sunrise and a cigarette together. The surrounding clouds are milky cotton giants that make the airship seem so insignificant in the heavens. I feel as if I can see until the end of creation.
“How do the days feel to you now, young Oz?” he asks. “Do they fuse together, one long, unending blur?” He smiles, not waiting for an answer. “Perhaps this will not always be the case. Look,” he says nudging his head, “to the south. We sail to Trabzon where we will repair, resupply and man this airship with fresh soldiers from the garrison there. It is a nice town far removed from this war in the Crimean.”
I take the cigarette from Adnan’s outstretched hand to enjoy my turn. “It sounds like a welcome change,” I say, “which I know will be too short.”
Instead of reaching for the cigarette when I give it back, Adnan grabs my shoulder. His face is serious, his eyes intense.
“The nicest thing about being homeless is that you can make anywhere home, yes?”
True to his description, Trabzon is a nice town. Squat houses sit quiet, nestled between rolling green hills and a half moon bay. We are met with cheers from soldiers and townspeople as we land. Fresh faced soldiers and tinkerers and dockworkers bearing crates flood up the gangway.
“Ozan!” Hezarfen calls to me. He leads the way down the gangway, where several small cages wait for us. They seem overstuffed with capuchins, too many to count despite the fact that they sit still. The organ grinder has more than refreshed his troop supply. Like the ones in the airship, they look at me silently with black, accusing eyes.
I do not want more of this. Adnan’s words of home echo in my mind. I sneak off in the dead of night to escape Hezarfen, the monkeys, the war. No one sees me or no one cares. A heady rush of freedom fills me. Eagerly, I explore the city, its streets and alleyways.
At daybreak, the airship’s horn blows, signaling its coming departure. My breathing tightens in my chest. I look around. Something about the town scares me. This kind of quiet, one without engine clangs and ballast hisses, does not seem natural. My view of the world has been ruthlessly chopped down. There are no panoramas here. It all seems so ugly and low.
I run with everything in me towards the sound of the horn. Fear that the airship will lift off without me pushes my legs harder than they’ve ever moved. My yell to wait is abolished by the blaring horn. I make it, flying up the gangway and stopping only when I stumble and fall upon the deck.
Adnan stares at me with utter disbelief as I lay there panting and wheezing on the deck of the rising airship. “Dear young fool,” he says.
Again, Adnan is right. I regret the decision every time we face the Russians. I see six more skirmishes of varying nature accompanied by varying songs from the organ grinder. “Song of Suleiman” for lightly armed vessels. “March of the Janissaries” for heavily armed destroyers. And for the kolotar, the men housed in armored steam engines, only “The Sultan’s Suicide” is played.
These skirmishes take their toll on the nature of the capuchins. Hezarfen’s nature never changes. He scoops up the broken monkeys, the parts that are still breathing, still hurting, fractions of monkeys above one half. He talks to them, pleads and begs as he gathers them into his arms, the rest of the world forgotten as he soothes them, brings them to the waiting laboratory of the galvanizer. New legs, new tails, a new jaw for one, new names for all. Nearly half of the organ grinder’s forces have been fused with metal pieces and I swear he hates them all.
After naming two more to be forever reviled, I retreat to the open air. On deck, Adnan smokes a cigarette. He gazes westward to the oranges and purples of a sun dipping ever lower beneath the horizon.
“I do not understand Hezarfen,” I say to him. “He acts to save the monkeys and once they are saved, it seems as if he despises them. Why does he do this?”
“The things people seek answers for!” Adnan spits as if he’s cursing. “Do you know how this airship floats? I could explain to you the nature of the steam engine and the hydrogen distillers that balance out our ballasts. Would you like to know? Or do you wonder why the monkeys heed the sound of the organ? I could talk about Faraday’s work in electricity coupled with Mesmer’s work in mind control, and how the two led to this horrible, incredible experiment of electrically induced brain etching on animals. I could explain how the etching is reinforced by auditory instructions found in the copper plates, instructions overwritten by the taste of Turkish blood.”
Adnan takes a pull of his cigarette before continuing. He talks and smoke wraps around his words.
“No one wants to hear this, this science, because it’s easier to believe in magic. In good and evil spirits, in souls.” He looks at his metal fingers. “In half souls.”
He gazes out over the Black Sea stretching to the horizon below us, glowing like a jewel as the calm waters reflect the setting sun. “Even in this age of steam, people still believe in the magic of Old Constantinople. That jinn hide in the curl of hookah smoke, Immortals dwell in forgotten corners of the Covered Bazaar selling baubles, and fairies dance at dusk along the shores of the Golden Horn. And of all the things you need explained to you, all the workings of our modern age around you I could demystify, you wonder about the heart of a man who is always masked.”
Adnan looks at me. “What a person feels is the one thing that can’t be explained, the only magic left in the world. Can you explain it? Can you?”
The way Adnan gazes at me, I know he is not speaking about the organ grinder. I say nothing because I do not know the answer. I don’t know why I am on this ship.
The answer comes a week later, in a turbulent sky dark with giant storm clouds. We see an unnatural glint hiding in the clouds beside us and respond with harpoon fire. All six harpoons find purchase. Moments later a massive airship that could only be the enemy’s Voina Gulag pushes through the cloud cover.
The Voina Gulag is more box fortress than airship, square and towering, full of hard angles and big cannons typically reserved for naval destroyers. It is a miracle their engines can keep such a beast afloat; it seems as if it takes up the entire sky before us. Yet all of this is not what makes the Voina Gulag instantly recognizable to us.
Unlike most Russian vessels, the Voina Gulag takes prisoners. They dangle from her flat underside secured in rope harnesses. Row after row of bodies hang, too numerous to count. Some men are alive, screaming at us in hoarse voices we hear only as ghostly moans over the wind. Others are corpses perpetually rotting in weather-beaten Turkish, British, and French uniforms. In between the fully alive and rotting dead, emaciated men list despondently, their faces gaunt, sunken hollows. Their skeletal faces are like Death itself, a haunting reminder to those who face this airship that their fate will be one as a living trophy and passing into the veil will be a relief, their last and greatest blessing.
Our harpoons already have purchase. We cannot run. The Voina Gulag fires it massive cannons.
We descend sharply with a hiss of the ballasts in a cloud of our own rising steam. It is not enough. The cannon fire renders our sails useless. Men scurry as rigging, wood, and sails come crashing down. A moment later, the Voina Gulag lobs two metal balls the size of boulders at us. They land with a sickening crack onto the deck. The balls stand upright to reveal two of their kolotar steam knights.
Bigger and bulkier than the average man, their faceplates are painted to look like skulls. The kolotar run faster than men housed in that much metal should, steam blowing out of hinges in their knees and shoulder blades. They charge through our forces, cutting them down with bayonets attached to their forearms as they make their way towards the stern.
Hezarfen rushes topside, one hand bearing the songbook, the other his organ. He doesn’t bother strapping the organ on. Instead he tosses me the songbook as he sets the organ onto the deck and opens the lid. Wordlessly, I open the songbook and toss him back “The Sultan’s Suicide.”
On bent knee, Hezarfen grinds his organ. The capuchins swarm up from below and stream towards the kolotar who are trying to slice open our ballast tanks while rifle fire bounces harmlessly off their iron hides. The capuchins cover the kolotar. The monkeys claw and scratch and bite in a rage, working their way into the joints and seams of the kolotar armor. Sparks fly as the capuchins with metal parts scrape their metal against the steam armor. In moments, we hear the ungodly screams of one of the men dying to get out of his suit.
The other kolotar knocks swarming capuchins from his visor and begins to search the deck. He sees the organ grinder and charges, the smoking ballast all but forgot. Hezarfen stands his ground, holding the organ by the straps as he keeps grinding. The kolotar’s steps become erratic as the monkeys finally work their way into his armor. We hear him scream. Still, the kolotar charges. He grabs Hezarfen, who drops the organ to tumble in a harsh landing across the deck.
The screaming, dying kolotar takes Hezarfen and a half a dozen monkeys with him as he jumps from the airship. They all disappear in the dense storm clouds below.
We all stare at the organ.
Anyone can grind it. No one is willing to pick up the instrument. Even as we face certain doom and see our own futures in the bodies dangling from the Voina Gulag. No one moves. None of us knows what the organ gives, what it takes. The only one who believes the instrument was not forged in hell is Adnan.
They are staring at me, the monkeys I have named. Clapper and Luckless, Irontail and Hardjaw, over a dozen creatures who the other monkeys treat as yarim and give a wide berth when not under the organ’s spell. As if seeking refuge, they look to the one who has named and nurtured them with blood.
The other monkeys pant and stare vacantly. They have lost their names now that Hezarfen is gone. Perhaps I’ll discover opportunity to name them. I once thought them whole, but, just as clearly as the ones who now move with the help of pistons and gears, they too have been changed.
Changed as they are, as I am, we all need homes, yes?
The Voina Gulag is turning in the air, preparing to fire off another volley.
Two months shy of manhood, my choice is clear. I exchange “The Sultan’s Suicide” within the organ for “March of the Janissaries,” and I begin to grind. The sound is the keening wail of a thousand grieving mothers.
It makes me smile the way the soldiers smile when they speak of home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Beamon has an unbelievable past, mostly because he uses his spare time writing down fabrications to sell to others. That said, he’s been in the Air Force, to Iraq and Afghanistan, on the Nebula Recommended Reading List and in trouble more times than he cares to honestly admit. But he doesn’t even try to sell honesty, claiming it doesn’t have a believable character arc. Currently he lives with his wife, son and attack cat in Virginia and invites you all to check out what he’s up to on Twitter (@WriterBeamon) or on his blog, fictigristle.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the July 2018 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Jay Lake, Genevieve Valentine, G.V. Anderson, Naomi Novik, Adam-Troy Castro, Kyle Muntz, Caroline M. Yoachim, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.