We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Projections by S.E. Porter, a dark historical fantasy publishing with Tor Books on February 13.
Angus at the Door
There has to be a reason why I do these things. My eyes sort of slur into waking. I’m upright, a backpack hunched over my shoulders and my hand lifted, forefinger up and eager—not what you’d expect for someone who’s been asleep. I didn’t just ring the doorbell next to this pale green, rust-mottled door, did I? I have a feeling that maybe I did. So it might be good if I could remember what I’m doing here before somebody opens it?
Something’s clutched in my left hand. Phone. I swing it reflexively in front of my face, and there’s a text message bubbled blue on the screen. It’s from someone named Tom Monroe, and I don’t think I recall anyone with that name, unless maybe I do? Angus hey buddy heard you’re in Chicago! My mom’s friend Carmen has jobs in her warehouse. 2021 West Street. Just show up.
Below that there’s a reply, which I presumably typed myself: Thanks buddy. On it.
A job! What a valid, incontestable, normal-person reason to be standing here. I love it.
This is definitely a warehouse in front of me. Those skanky mylar parallelograms are clearly marked with 2021. And Chicago? That seems like useful information too. The clouds hang low above, sallow and heavy with September heat.
The door jerks open. A woman looking fifty-some is standing there, all square jaw and boxy shoulders and giant puff of hair as thick and sticky-looking as freshly poured tar, but with more gray. Brilliant blue eyes screwed into a censorious scowl. “Carmen?” I say, but it’s obvious she can’t be anyone else. “Tom Monroe sent me. He said you need workers? I’m Angus Farrow.”
There. I’m pleased with myself for getting it together so quickly, for acting so much like people are supposed to do.
But Carmen throws back her head and laughs. “You’re Gus?” It’s a hilarious piece of information. She laughs again and looks me over, shaking her head in what seems like disbelief.
I laugh, too, just to cover the awkwardness of it all. “I really prefer Angus. I guess Tom told you about me?”
Another head shake. “Angus. Well, in that case you’re hired, little boy. Come on in and we’ll get you settled.”
“Just like that?” I say. And then, “Settled?”
“Just like that,” Carmen agrees, already walking away into a mush of vague shadows. I hurry to follow her. “And settled, because the job comes with an apartment. Nothing too nice, but it’ll keep you in the running. That plus minimum wage. I don’t expect an argument.”
“Are you sure you don’t have me mixed up with someone else?”
Carmen laughs again. “You’re Gus Farrow. It’s a small, stale, indigestible fact. Not something I’m likely to find confusing.”
Angus, I think. But it seems like I’ve already lost that argument. She’s walking away, and I scamper after her.
“It’s not that complicated of a job,” she says without looking around. “You follow instructions, you don’t screw it up on any kind of major scale, and you don’t bitch where I can hear you. Why would I waste time interviewing you over that?”
Catherine at Home
To call my removal to Nautilus an unsettling transition would hardly do it justice. I had lost my life and my person and become a shrieking hant, flapping unwillingly after my sullen murderer, and besides that been dragged to a city I found highly uncongenial. From a lovely day in July, 1859, from my insignificant little town in western New York, I had passed to its luminous nowhere, its bleary nowhen. Time as we know it does not apply in Nautilus, so I cannot say how long it was that insensate rage took up all my attention and spared none for my circumstances. I seemed to spin in my own flashing black and shine, detached from all external happenings.
But at a certain point, I woke from the violence of my own feelings and looked about me, a bit numb and drained at first: at the pearlescent city, and at Gus’s doings within it.
However harshly I assessed my old friend’s character, even I could not call him lacking in diligence. Gus had secured a large room—I gathered from scraps of conversation that money as I knew it was not required for that purpose, only the same uncanny powers that had obtained his citizenship—and set to work.
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“I have the advantage, dearest Catherine,” Gus hissed at me, as if continuing a conversation that had never truly stopped. “You see, I age only when I leave Nautilus. If I make my visits sparingly, I can endure here for centuries of ordinary time—more! In that span I can achieve anything.”
Of his ambitions, I knew only what he had told me on my arrival here: that he meant to extract love from young women he deemed my surrogates, or scatter death among them if love was not forthcoming. On the former count he was right to think me skeptical. On the latter I did not have the luxury of doubt.
He paced, yanking my spirit after him. His pivots set me wagging like washing on the line. How I hated the bend of his neck with its pale bristles, the sharpness of his steps, the pretended wisdom of his somberly shaken head! Around us the glowing walls rippled and light spun in their depths, but even then I had glimpsed enough of Nautilus to guess that his room was modest by local standards.
He had not bothered with furniture, nor had any been supplied beyond a pallet on the floor. His clothes lay about in heaps of variable cleanliness, and he had an ill-fed look that made his pointed face positively vulpine. The diffuse glow of the room erased every trace of shadow and made his dirty underthings appear to float, dimensionless and bright. It also showed the stains with eerie emphasis, like a sort of reverse phosphorescence.
“Look!” he exclaimed, pointing across the room at what appeared to be a hovering blot near one fluid wall. “See what I can do already!”
The blot was not on the wall, but perhaps a yard before it. It was low and hunched, like a child with its arms wrapped around its knees. Rather than being flat, as I had first supposed, the thing was sculptural and translucent, a shadow inflated into rounded cylinders and bulges. My insubstantial being churned with terrible cold, though I did not yet understand what I was seeing.
Then the blot raised its head and looked up at me with eyes like greenish dewdrops, its mouth wide and imploring. I would have liked to scream at the sight, but had no way to differentiate that shriek from the one I was emitting already.
I knew that face. The pointed nose, poking far forward of both brows and chin, the round eyes tinted with the palest green arrogance, the tow-blond bristling hair that no brush could induce to lie smooth: I was looking at Gus himself as he had appeared at four or five years of age.
The child-apparition opened its mouth as if to keen, but no sound came out. The air tensed with its silent plaint. The grown Gus turned from the mournful little thing to me, his head nodding with furious satisfaction.
“You observe, Catherine? I made that. With nothing but the abilities you reviled, I made the semblance of a living being!”
I would have liked to inform him that this ghost of his own past was so evidently miserable that even I, who wished him all the ill in the world, nonetheless pitied it.
Why had he made it, though? What use could he find for this creature?
Gus was staring fixedly at me. I realized he was inspecting my flickering visage for indications of what he considered proper awe, and found it wanting.
“Future versions can be made more substantial,” Gus told me in defensive tones. “I’m still practicing with appearances, but once I’ve made them thoroughly persuasive I can begin collecting materials to give them all the solidity of actual persons. I’ve seen what masters of the form can do with these projections; no one uninitiated would ever imagine they were anything but living men and women. No one, Catherine. No matter how clever she thought herself.”
Tethered together as Gus and I were, had I seen such beings before? I tried to search my memory, but it was no use; I had been too remote, too obliterated, to recall any examples of what Gus might mean. But now I was back, aware, and curious. I found that wanted to act again, to put my arms around his creature, to claw out Gus’s throat. My bodiless state mocked me, restrained me at every turn. I could neither embrace nor assault.
Gus had said that he would age only outside of Nautilus, in the warm and breathing world now lost to me. And he had intimated as well that he meant to live a very long time. I considered the possible uses to which embodied echoes of himself might be put, and felt an icy clenching. I thought he wanted emissaries, beings who could return to the world in his stead, and I feared I could guess why.
But a child? How could this dismal boy, all jagged features and inaudible whining, serve Gus’s purpose?
Gus was nodding again as he turned his back on me. He approached the huddled child-thing with a few curt steps, and I of course billowed along with him. Gus dropped to one knee and stretched out a hand to his feeble simulacrum. For a moment I entertained the hope that he meant to comfort it as I longed to do. Enemy or not, human or not, the sight of a wretched child was unendurable to me.
“Here, Angus! Come to me at once.”
The little Angus showed a marked reluctance to obey. Meanwhile I considered how Gus had never allowed anyone but Margo to call him by his full name.
Gus leaned forward impatiently. There were no corners to the room—nor to any other in Nautilus—but its scrolling contours still served to trap the little wraith in a hollow. A projection, Gus had called it. An image that might be made flesh.
Gus grabbed it by its shoulder and yanked it forward. It writhed and thrashed, but without much energy. Perhaps it knew already the futility of resistance.
Gus’s two hands spread on the dim head and chest; he had always had very long hands relative to his build, blond and deft with prominent bones: a pianist’s hands. The Angus’s small shadowy mouth opened in hollow protest, and I flapped above in the futile conviction that I must do something on the instant.
Then Gus’s hands squeezed in. The apparition crumpled. It looked for a moment like strange glassy paper with the image of a terrified child printed on it, or like a child-shaped balloon of fine silk deflating. I could still see one green dewdrop eye staring directly at me in voiceless longing, as if I were its last hope.
Gus wadded it up like a handkerchief and stuffed it in his left trouser pocket. I had a last glimpse of dim fingers clutching at his wrist, then it was gone.
My scream remained the same, much as I would have preferred to scream more loudly.
Gus glanced at me over his shoulder. “The creation of such beings is demanding,” he explained, and I detected a note of embarrassment. “It draws much less on my resources if I reuse the power invested in the old ones to make the new.”
It was at this juncture that a knock sounded, oddly resonant. It was not a knock at the door, for I realized in surprise that no such thing could be seen in the room. Rather there was an area of wall defined by a lintel and doorstep but otherwise identical to the rest, and under that lintel an opalescent light spread in concentric circles that pulsed in time with the knock. The wall then wavered and admitted a figure.
A minotaur. In a dandyish frock coat of bright peacock blue. Had I been able I would have burst into uncontrolled laughter, and tears as well, at such a visitor arriving so soon after the unfeeling destruction of the shadow-child. Was it still aware, still in some way itself, where it sat crushed against Gus’s hip?
The minotaur recoiled slightly and turned an appraising gaze on me. “No wonder no one will take the rooms near yours, Gus,” he said, nearly shouting over my permanent clamor, then gave a low chuckle. “How could they possibly sleep with all this racket? It would cost a fortune to be forever paying for silencing spells; no one would put themselves in such a position if they could help it. And it must be exceedingly awkward at parties. There’s nothing worse than a woman who doesn’t know when to shut her mouth, eh?”
With that he clapped Gus on the back with loathsome bonhomie. The blow reverberated from Gus’s shoulders into me, so that I pitched windily beneath the ceiling.
“Oh, I can go nowhere. The number of invitations I’ve had to turn down, only because she can’t be quiet—” Gus waved his hands as if all these unattended dinners and balls hung about him like a cloud of gnats.
“I’m sure. Your talent has attracted attention already. In Nautilus power is the only currency, and if you are not rich yet, it seems likely that effort will make you so in time.” The hairy mouth bent into an ingratiating smile, quite human in character. I could not justify the conviction, but I felt certain that I was looking at a man, albeit one with magical abilities like Gus’s, and no authentic monster.
“I’m not pursuing my studies in the interest of anything as coarse as wealth or social position,” Gus said loftily, contradicting the complaints uttered only moments before. “I have a calling.”
He raised his chin. In the vaporous glow of his room his profile stood out, sharp and brittle as the edge of a broken plate. How thin he was!
For the first time it occurred to me that Gus’s death might spell release from my unspeakable suspension. I looked at his sunken cheeks with new interest. What could I do to hurry matters along?
“Of course you do,” the minotaur soothed. He cast about with bobbing horns as if seeking someone to gore, though I suppose he only wanted a chair. He shifted uncomfortably. “But what you are attempting is no simple feat, Mr. Farrow. If I understand your objectives correctly, a projection that lasts only a few days will not serve. Neither will one that lacks bodily substance. Even more difficult, you will need to endow your creations with minds of their own, with a certain amount of education, and with enough memories to convince them of their own reality. It might take dozens of attempts before you have one ready to commit to the field, even assuming that you can obtain the materials.”
The word materials was delivered with a slippery emphasis I did not like.
“I don’t see why they require independent minds or memories,” Gus rejoined fretfully. I noted that he had no argument with the other items listed. “The appearance should suffice.”
“It won’t.” The bovine eyes rolled toward Gus’s dingy pallet with a look of combined longing and revulsion. That gigantic horned head was no doubt burdensome.
“Why not?” Gus demanded. “I have work enough to do on their appearance and durability without worrying about what they think. They belong to me, and they have only to follow my orders.”
“You told me that your Catherine was clever. Clever above all else. A poor girl who taught herself Latin and Greek, who was fascinated by natural history. Or did I misunderstand you?” The creature at last stopped swiveling about and settled for leaning on the nearest wall, then glanced at me again. I noted that the wall now supported him; was it permeable only where there was a suggestion of an entrance? His immense nostrils narrowed. “I grant that she gives no particular impression of wit at present.”
Didn’t I? Well, the minotaur gave the impression of carrying an absolute labyrinth of self-satisfied dullness about with it, as a snail transports its shell.
“Oh, she was! Catherine was a lighthouse in the wastes to me. She was the flash that glides through the dark, that looks through in any direction. The excitement I used to feel when she had trained her attention on any question at all, as I waited to hear what she would say—it was exquisite.”
Oh, was Gus still moved to lyricism on the subject of my perfections? How nice to be remembered so fondly.
“And you are seeking to win her love, are you not? At least, the love of some reasonable facsimile, since hers is no longer”—the snout vibrated delicately—“a realistic goal?”
“And?” Gus was beginning to fidget. His left hand contracted in his pocket and the fabric bulged as if his fingers were worrying something inside it.
“The heart of such a woman won’t be won by a puppet. That ought to be obvious. Your projections will need freedom of thought and action and a fair conviction of their own humanity, or these not-quite-Catherines you envision will recoil at the first word they speak.”
Gus’s shoulders slumped and his eyes turned skyward, with exactly the exasperated air my mother would have assumed at the sight of a freshly washed nightgown flung into the mud.
“That will require an entirely separate course of study.”
“Indeed it will.” The minotaur looked at me again, his mouth contorting in a bestial approximation of a smile. He presumably imagined that his form conveyed all the terror of myth brought to life, but to me he was never more than a cow in a coat. “Hardly anyone has achieved a truly independent mentality in their projections—and most of the claims that have been made don’t hold up on examination. You can expect decades of labor ahead of you.”
A huffle escaped Gus’s lips; he sounded like an expiring horse. “Then what course do you recommend? If what I intend is really so difficult—but I can’t let that put me off!”
“Oh, your dedication is admirable, no doubt. Continue practicing with children; their minds are simpler. Once you’ve mastered the projection of a thinking, dreaming child, you can turn your hand to young men, even change and refine their faces if you like. A pity you can’t consult Catherine as to her preferences.”
Practice. I wondered how many infantile wraiths Gus had already crushed like sketches that hadn’t come off, and how many more would cringe away from him in vain. I thought I could feel the little thing’s suffering like a vibration humming in his pocket, fancied that I caught the glint of a welling eye.
Gus, meanwhile, drew himself up, no doubt offended by the insinuation that I might have liked him better with a different appearance. He flashed a glance at me that was positively plaintive, as if my ghost might be persuaded to stop screaming long enough to reassure him of his personal attractions.
“And there was already the bother of obtaining the materials.” Gus was fretting outright now.
The minotaur’s lips flattened as he repressed a smile. This was the moment he’d been anticipating, I realized; he had induced Gus’s weariness at the prospect of his undertaking on purpose, so that any offer of assistance would be received eagerly.
“Possibly I can help you there.” An outright grin opened on blocky teeth. “The occasional Athenian youth isn’t too much to spare for my friends.”
Gus looked sharply at that, as indeed did I. “On what consideration?”
“Nothing just now. Possibly you can repay the favor in the future.”
Gus was not so easily put off. “I cannot possibly spare talens for you in any significant amounts. My own projects require every drop I can muster. Already I barely sleep. Instead of resting I’m always drawing from myself, and using all my concentration to do so.”
“As to that, you have a tremendous source of wealth close at hand.” The tone was not lost on me, jocularity half concealing the fervent intent behind.
I could not guess what source he was referring to until Gus glanced up at me, his lips pursed in distaste. “That would be most unseemly. Possibly even dangerous, if I understand the mechanism correctly.”
The minotaur smiled. “Well, then, we can forget the question of payment for now—though many ghosts make an excellent wellspring, depending on the type. All that bottled fury packs a punch!” Then his eyes rolled sidelong at me and his lips flattened in concern. “The walls do repel her, I assume? She doesn’t pass through?”
“Through the walls? No, she doesn’t. I hadn’t considered—”
“The walls recognize anyone—or anything—seeping magic. She’s definitely generating talens, then.”
Gus gave a startled laugh. “The walls mistake her for a citizen? They think my poor Catherine is paying taxes?”
“She is, in effect,” the minotaur said with studied carelessness. “Not that it alters her legal status, and that’s very much to your benefit. Ghosts are nonentities under the law, so you can do as you like with your Catherine. Shall we meet at the Nimble Fire soon and discuss this further?”
“That would mean carrying her through the streets. It’s only when I return to the unworld that no one seems to hear or see her. She’s quieter in my ears there as well.”
The unworld. In all its beauty, intricacy, splendor, that was what he called it. A single fallen leaf, a bit of robin’s eggshell in the grass, I rated more precious than this whole enchanted city. The sheer waste of it all choked me: the waste of my life, of the child, of vast power turned to nothing good or useful.
The minotaur shrugged. “I advise you to give up your seclusion regardless. You are hardly the only citizen encumbered in such a manner. Charles Rollins, for one, has a miniscule sky-blue child, no bigger than a lizard, forever attempting to wring his neck and wailing. So Charles wears a muffler and gets on with his business.”
Naturally he did, I thought. So many things were different here in Nautilus, but society’s habit of winking at monsters—that was quite unchanged.
Gus was nodding in acknowledgement of the minotaur’s wisdom.
They exchanged more pleasantries, more assurances, and then our visitor left, the wall rippling behind him.
“Terrible vanity,” Gus muttered at the wall, and then confirmed all my guesses regarding the minotaur’s original form. “Imagine the expense of keeping up such an excessive appearance—an entire bull’s head, and probably improvements to his physique as well! It must drain his magic at a dreadful rate. One would think there were no serious matters to attend to.”
I would have liked to tell him that he was mistaking his own cruelty for gravity; that everything he himself did was as senseless, as wasteful and absurd, as that bull’s head.
There was a brief lull while Gus shifted about, oddly furtive, as if there was something he wished to do unobserved. Several times he glanced at me, perhaps hoping I would do him the courtesy of disappearing. He was so frank on the subject of his proposed crimes that this new discomfort baffled me. What could he intend that was so much more vile than what I knew already?
And here a change in my own outlook struck me: I was anxious what Gus meant to do. I cared, and cared to see if I could, what? Stop him? I understood then that withdrawing as I had was no longer an option for me. Perhaps I could do nothing, but that was irrelevant. I must observe, must consider any avenues I could find.
I must try. Thrash, flail, or fail as I might; it was all as nothing compared to that child’s green eye squeezed between his fingers.
At last he sighed loudly and began stuffing his soiled linens into a sack.
“My mother and father are away,” Gus informed me. “Visiting for a few weeks with my Hathaway cousins. We’re going to see Margo.” He paused, scowling. “Don’t look at me like that!”
Oh, Margo! So she was spending her old age scrubbing her fugitive nephew’s underclothes? I could not scream with laughter, so I simply screamed.
Excerpted from Projections, copyright © 2024 by S.E. Porter.