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magazine coverCarrie Vaughn is another Talebones success story. This story was the first of hers to see print, but of course, today she is a wildly successful novelist. Like I did for the James Van Pelt story, I enlisted her help to narrow down her list of fabulous Talebones stories before deciding her very first one from issue #17 was the right choice. (I’m still waiting, however, for her to write the promised Tudor poetry/Victorian literaure/Cyberpunk story.) Our sole cover by acclaimed horror artist Alan M. Clark appeared on #17, depicting a wonderful blend of dark fantasy and science fiction.



Esther had a recurring dream in which her throat was cut.

She hangs back over the edge of the bed, arms flung out, crucifix-like. Blood from the gash across her neck pours into her hair, long, red, flowing like water. Rich and luxurious, her hair streams red, drips red, moves in a draft, alive. It is hair a man could bury his hands in, his face in, or grab and pull, jerking her around like a doll.

“That’s her?”

“Yes. We brought her in an hour ago. You’re lucky she wasn’t killed in the firefight.”

She didn’t know if she’d woken up. Her eyes had opened, she thought, but the figures on the other side of the bars seemed indistinct. She couldn’t see their minds, which bothered her. She should have been able to tell what they were thinking.

“She’s drugged?” The man in the overcoat said this.

“As you instructed.” The other man wore a beige uniform and a gun on his belt.

Esther could still hear the guns firing. They’d come from everywhere. She’d tried to warn Ike, tried to tell him when she felt the minds of two dozen police officers converging on the warehouse where he’d set up the deal. They’d catch him this time, with fifty kilos of dust on his hands. But the buyers had already arrived, the deal had progressed too far to call it off. She begged him, tried to pull him away. The buyer had drawn her gun first, at the sign of Esther’s panic. Esther had ducked under the table, arms clasped over her head.

She could still hear the guns. Ike’s blood still stained her shirt.

The man in the overcoat, the inquisitive one, looked her in the eye. She stared back. Maybe he noticed her staring at him. She couldn’t get the taste of gunpowder out of her mouth. Ike had died before he hit the floor. She could still feel it, the light behind his eyes going out, a flash and then darkness. She couldn’t feel much of anything else.

“Her parents signed the release?”

“They don’t have to. She just turned eighteen.”

“But I don’t want them asking questions when she disappears.”

“Don’t worry, they won’t. Not with this sort of kid.”

“Right. My orderlies have our van around back. Thanks for your help, officer.”

“Pleasure doing business with you, Doctor Grant.”

They pulled Esther’s long, thick hair when they carried her to the white van. She tried to tell them to be careful of it, her one vanity, her only pride. She tried to warn them.

Doctor Grant — that’s what they called the slim man in the overcoat — stood nearby and spoke to her. “Be still. No one will hurt you.”

The words lifted a weight from her. “You’re here to save me? You’ll help me?” Her voice sounded weak, tinny. She couldn’t remember what she’d just said.

“She’s really doped, isn’t she?” Someone laughed.

“She’d better be,” Grant’s calm voice said. “Esther, what am I thinking?”

She ought to know. She would have told him. But she just shook her head. She could barely see his face, let alone his thoughts.

When he spoke again, he sounded pleased. “Well then. What are you thinking?”

No one had ever asked her that before.

He sounded confident, a man who could protect her. Protect her from — she couldn’t remember. He stood very close to her.

“I want you to run your hands through my hair.”

The same someone laughed again. Doctor Grant disappeared.

The blood from her throat flowed into her hair. She floated in a river of blood, her hair streaming out around her.

Saint Hilda’s School for Profligate Girls had been closed for many decades now. Its last students had been guilty of such crimes as smoking in the alley behind the drugstore, and had mooned over magazine cut-outs of Rudolph Valentino. Situated upstate, deep in a forest on a thousand acre nature preserve, it had been an ideal place to which to remove girls from the influences of unfeminine vices and Hollywood. It sat on a hill, commanding a view of the river valley below. The building itself, before being donated for the creation of the girls’ school, had been the summer mansion of a steel baron. It exhibited all the multistoried, multilayered, ornamented decadence the Victorian gothic revival could produce. Multiple bay windows, a clock tower with a weathervane, gabled roofs, several porches, sashed windows, stained glass windows, round windows, cathedral windows. Gargoyles leered over the porticos.

Inside Saint Hilda’s, there were mirrors: at the ends of corridors, along the walls of parlors, in the great dining hall that ran the length of one side of the building, in the study, and in the bedrooms. An observant person might note that the interior floor space of the mansion seemed a good deal smaller than was suggested by the exterior façade.

Esther knew who was there, behind the mirrors. And he knew, as he looked out of his duckblinds and saw her looking back, that Esther was the reason he’d begun this grand project of his in the first place, at this remote and rotting building that he’d turned into his laboratory. In her, he found a Vessel.

She still could not be sure she’d woken up. The sedative had worn off; she could hear them thinking again. But this place, however solid the floor beneath her feet, the walls under her hands, seemed dream-like, so unlike any place that had ever been real to her, like basements and gutters.

They treated her politely, here at Saint Hilda’s. A collection of men and women in white lab coats escorted her from room to room. She ate meals in the kitchen. She slept in her own bedroom, with a real four-poster bed and feather pillows. She got new clothes, starched white shirts and prim dark slacks — a uniform, really, like the girls may have worn decades ago, when this was still a school. She walked outside sometimes, when the handlers let her. She’d never seen water as blue as that of the river.

Most days she spent in a bare room, charming almost with its scuffed hardwood floor and chipped plaster walls, where they showed her the backs of cards and made her tell the shapes on the fronts, asked her endless questions with cryptic psychological values, gave her tests, pasted electrodes to her temples and tracked the patterns her brain made, administered a polygraph — she’d had that one before. All the while, Grant watched from behind the mirrors. She passed all his tests, and she knew he smiled.

She wished he would come out from behind the mirrors. She could hear his thoughts, yes — his pleased, ambitious thoughts — but she wanted to see him react to her. To see what he would do when he had a chance to put his hand on her body. She could make him want to do that, if she tried — it had nothing to do with his mind, or hers. She’d done it before, with Ike. It was how she stayed safe. They didn’t hurt her when they wanted her.

She saw him at last the day the minions brought her to the basement of Saint Hilda’s for the first time. The brick and plaster room was the only one in the mansion that looked like a laboratory, with banks of computers and medical equipment, a long table full of monitors and needle-etched printouts, and a hospital bed, where they made Esther lie and strapped down her hands and feet.

While they attached her to various machines with wires and electrodes, she saw Grant, his tall, slim body wrapped in a labcoat. His brown hair was precisely trimmed, his face perfectly shaven. He looked younger than she thought he should be — his mind seemed older. He moved more slowly than his minions, surveying the proceedings, checking a reading, pointing his instructions. She followed him with her gaze, but his glance only passed over her briefly. She was just another piece of equipment.

She could read minds. Grant had been looking for one like her for years. She knew his plans, skimmed all his research off the surface of his thoughts — such thoughts were always on his mind. He had a computer, a Mental Interfacing Machine Intelligence, he called it. She’d known what he intended. But it hadn’t seemed real, it hadn’t seemed feasible until this moment when she lay here, wired to this computer.

“How are her vital signs?” Grant asked. If only he would look at her, really look at her. She clenched her fists.

“Good,” someone answered, checking off on a clipboard. “Heartbeat elevated slightly, but within safe parameters.”

“The MIMI?”


A case, gray plastic and smooth, the size of a table, lurked in its corner, staring with a steady green light.

“I’ll start the flow myself.”

Doctor Grant opened the floodgate.

You are mine.

The machine had no perception of itself. Esther tried to anchor the intruding thought to an image, a consciousness, but all she found was an amorphous intelligence that grasped the complexity and chaos of the universe. Expansive and overwhelming, it had only one need, which it expressed, driving to her marrow: it needed a tool.

Esther flinched, a startled convulsion which made her pull against the nylon bindings.

“Hold her down!”

“What’s happening?”

Something clicked, and the room was silent. Esther tried to look at the ceiling, its beams and boards, the grain of the wood. She couldn’t open her eyes.

“Interface complete.”

“Esther, look at me,” Grant said.

Something else looked out of her eyes.

Grant stood very close to her, looking down at her, just as she’d wanted. He touched her, his hand cupped around the side of her face, holding open her eyelid with his thumb.


Esther opened her mouth to say something, to say no, to ask what was happening. She felt so crowded, her mind filled to bursting. She winced because it hurt. Her voice creaked like rusted metal. She looked at him, tried to beg with her eyes. But he didn’t see her. He’d never seen her.

“I am here,” she said at last. “I am Esther.”

No, that wasn’t her. She couldn’t find the thing that used her voice and name, not even to argue with it. Again, her limbs jerked against their bindings — then went limp. Nothing she thought made them move.

The machine began to see, feel, smell, hear, taste with refined human senses, an infinitely better interface with the world than any lens or microphone yet devised. It began to collect data.

And at last, Grant smiled at her.

The machine tried to erase the line between them.

They set her loose on the estate of Saint Hilda’s with this beast staring out of her eyes. Esther was a puppet, screaming at the end of her strings. Screaming, with her mouth closed. The internal noise, her small will, kept the boundary of herself intact.

Once the MIMI knew it could not erase the line — after all, the purpose was to keep the Vessel intact, to learn from it — it tried to push the line back.

It made her touch a hot stove, to feel what it meant to be burned. It cut her, to discover what bleeding meant. It never did serious damage — nothing to scar. Esther became so tired of feeling.

Grant watched openly, without the mirrors now. He and an orderly followed her from room to room, across the lawn of the mansion or to the woods. Esther wanted to cry to him, save me, help me. He looked at her so tenderly sometimes.

A week after the invasion, she stripped, quickly, before the MIMI could intervene. Her guard neglected her when she was in her bedroom. Naked, with no clothes to brush and tingle against her skin, she made earplugs from wadded up toilet paper. She went to her small, dark closet, tied a knee sock around her eyes as a blindfold, wrapped herself in a smooth cotton sheet, and closed the door. She curled up in a corner of the closet and didn’t move, didn’t feel. Nothing to hear, see or taste in the darkness.

How do you like that?

The MIMI had discovered that it often could learn so much more if, instead of exerting control on the Vessel, it simply watched, to see what unexpected thing she’d do next. The MIMI could have made her open the door and release herself. Esther was trying to pick a fight.

I’ll be no good to you. I’ll gouge out my eyes before you can stop me. I’ll cut out my tongue. What would you do then?

The MIMI didn’t answer. It wanted to see how long she would lie there, immobile.

Grant came calling for her six hours later. “Esther? Esther, where are you?”

His voice sounded muffled through the paper in her ears. She felt the vibration of his footsteps on the floor and sensed the tremors of his mind. He was worried.

She’d vowed not to move, not to speak for anything. They’d have to drag her out, or the MIMI would have to take control. She wanted to see how long the MIMI would let her lie here.

She bit her lip and whimpered.

The closet door opened; a haze of light shined around the edges of her blindfold.

“Esther, what happened?”

Grant knelt by her, pulling the sheet and blindfold away. She looked at him, squinting, crying. Her muscles ached; she held the sheet to her chest.

Grant put his arms around her. “What did you do?”

“I don’t understand it. I don’t understand!” She clutched at him and sobbed, pressing her face to his arm.

Awkwardly, he held her, murmured things to her, and told her not to cry. He stroked her hair.

That calmed her. It always did, a touch against her scalp, along her hair, her shoulder, her back. She was lying naked in Grant’s arms. Of all the strangeness, she never would have come to this without the MIMI.

She straightened, pulling herself up to look in his eyes. She held his arms, moved his hands so they rested at her hips, on her thighs. She kissed him.

He didn’t pull away. The situation surprised him as much as it did her. But he didn’t pull away.

“This isn’t right,” he murmured.

Anxious to learn, the machine — machine — intervened and encouraged.

“Propriety is irrelevant. Continue.” Its words, not hers. She’d never speak like that.

But her words, the words she’d might have said—to Ike, say—wouldn’t have encouraged him to move his hands up her back, beyond the sheet, to press her bare skin.

No! He’s mine! Esther couldn’t push back the line; she only retained control because the MIMI didn’t know what to do next.

You are mine. Continue.

Esther clung to Grant like a drowning woman.


His thoughts about her had changed, from night to day, winter to summer, since their first meeting in the prison cell. His hands on her shoulders were heavy, protective. He was in love with her, she could see it in his thoughts.

Just as she could see that when he looked at her, he saw the MIMI.

When he put his arms around her, she thought she wouldn’t mind. She had him, he was hers. When they kissed, she thrilled. The exchange was fair, she thought — Grant’s love as payment for servicing the MIMI-monkey on her back.

Every day, every hour, she was the MIMI’s tool by which it learned, a conduit through which it impressed Grant and his scientists by its ability to learn. Beyond the interpretation of senses, of movement in a three dimensional world, it began to identify and express understanding of jealousy, confrontation, negotiation, compromise, trickery, rebellion, loyalty, friendship. Love, perhaps.

Esther became somewhat claustrophobic. Not that she had the chance to display phobias, but she felt more comfortable when the MIMI chose to spend its time outside. The MIMI learned that its Vessel was more compliant outdoors, with the breeze on their face, the sky in their sight. Esther became calm when she could look over the lawn to the river in the valley below. The MIMI didn’t have to struggle so much to make its observations.

Doctor Grant kept guards around the facility. Esther understood that what he was doing here was illegal, perhaps a different illegal than the kinds of things Ike had done. But then, perhaps not. The guards — former soldiers mostly, distinctively paramilitary — walked the grounds with guns and dogs.

A gun misfired nearby, when one of them near the house was checking his ammunition. The noise should have sent Esther under a table or chair. But the MIMI wanted to watch. The man who’d been operating the weapon had blown off his hand.

He bit back screams while his partner tied off a tourniquet. Blood and bits of flesh had flown everywhere. Esther, unwilling, quailing, screaming internally, stood up and walked toward the injured man. Others came running. Saint Hilda’s had doctors and a clinic. They bundled him inside, where he’d get surgery and shots for the pain.

Esther found a bit of finger lying in the grass. The MIMI picked it up, studying the feel of wet blood and dead flesh.

Grant came running, and Esther guiltily dropped the man’s finger and wiped her hand on her shirt.

“Are you all right?” he asked, breathless.

Wonderingly, Esther looked at the blood on her shirt, dried in the cracks of her skin. She’d had Ike’s blood on her hands. The MIMI had done it. She’d never have done it on her own. Now, the MIMI retreated to see how she would react.

She dropped to her knees and vomited, coughing out every last drop of bile while Grant watched.

“And what will she learn from that? Weakness?” Grant said, suddenly angry.

She? Esther hadn’t noticed when the MIMI had become she and not it. She thought of it as the beast. She wasn’t teaching it anything, only enduring it.

She ran her tongue over her teeth and spit. “It’s not learning weakness. It’s a machine. It’s using me.”

“It is you.”

Esther struggled to collect herself, to read his cues. She’d shifted her behavior — so he shifted his, as he did whenever he was reminded that she was not his machine, his creation, but a delinquent, a drug dealer’s slut. She saw the judgment in his mind.

She looked at him, shaking her head to toss her hair from her face. “Fuck you.”

His expression fully transformed from its initial concern to taut-jawed resentment. “She’s more important than you. Never forget.”

“It doesn’t love you, Grant.”

Frowning, he turned and left her on the bloody lawn.

The MIMI stayed distant to observe. It collected the data generated between Grant and Esther as it analyzed the relationships it, as a computer, was asked to survey: between atoms, between planets, between nations, between corporations.

To it, Esther was only so much information. It let her loose only when she might generate useful data.

They were in bed together. He breathed a sigh of satisfaction into her hair. Then, she spoke. Words rushed from her during the times it let her speak.

“Do you remember the first time we met? In the jail? You asked me what I was thinking. Why don’t you ask me that now?”

His thoughts turned to frost when he was reminded of the unmentionable, that she was not the MIMI, not really.

“Be quiet.”

“Do you know what I’m thinking right now? I’m closer to it than you are. I’m closer to it than you’ll ever be, no matter how hard you fuck me.”

He grabbed her hair, winding his fist in it and yanking her to him, so he could pin her with his body. He laid his forearm across her neck and pressed.

The MIMI observed, intrigued by the sensation of fear, of heavy male body compressing her lungs, preventing them from expanding. Naked flesh against naked, angry flesh.

Esther gasped out a laugh. “The bitch of it is,” she choked at him, “how much you really need me, isn’t it?”

Grimacing, he released her, with a last painful wrench to her hair. Esther’s scalp tingled for a week.

Grant’s minions debated whether or not the machine was learning love. The MIMI smiled at Grant and kissed him with Esther’s lips. But Esther would have done those things anyway.

From Esther, it learned sight and sound. It also learned amusement, anger, fear, despair. And pride. It would watch Esther through her eyes as she sat before the mirror, brushing her shining hair, like a vision from a Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting.

Esther and Grant sat at a table, eating. She still had to eat, despite it all. Her sensory interface might have been superior, but the scientists couldn’t plug her into a wall. The MIMI didn’t care for eating, once it had surveyed the usual range of tastes. It left Esther to her own self.

“When will you let me go?” she asked, setting down her utensils. She wasn’t hungry.

Grant paused, mid-bite. He liked to pretend sometimes that they were all normal here. This was just a house, he was just a man, and she was the woman he sat down to dinner with every night. Esther didn’t like to let him pretend.

She heard the answer in his thoughts, a flat refusal, an uncompromising never. Grant usually didn’t voice his thoughts, however.

“You don’t know how lucky you are to be here. To be the first in an experiment like this.”

Indeed, she did not.

“Do you love me, Grant?”

Again, she knew the answer. He was confused; he didn’t know who was speaking, Esther or the MIMI.

“I love you,” she said. “Do you know who I am?”

He stood up, scraping the chair on the floor. Trembling, he bit his lip, a repressed snarl. He wanted to hurt her. He imagined himself lunging across the table to strangle her. Amazement registered in his expression — he was not a violent man. But the feelings she aroused in him — violence, anger. Irrational, all of it. She was an experiment. A tool. Peripheral to the object, true artificial human intelligence. When had he stopped seeing her as a tool?

He looked helpless, standing with his impotent fists. She laughed at him. At this his face flushed red. He stalked from the table in the dining room.

Esther rested her elbows on the table, pressed her face to her hands, and bodily held the tears inside.

The MIMI watched, weaving its silicon cogitations.

I hate you, Esther told it.

It understood hate, taunting and laughter. Even when it didn’t speak, Esther could read its moods. It enjoyed her helplessness. Nothing she could think at the beast changed that. That didn’t keep her from trying.

What would it take to make him kill me?

Counterproductive. Your death is undesirable.

Then, she thought, what would it take to make him love me?

He already does.

In a manner of speaking. Esther didn’t feel up to arguing the point. What would it take to make him hate you?

Also counterproductive.

Do you care?

His emotional stability is desirable.

They debated about whether or not the machine was learning love.

Steak had been the meal tonight — Grant was fond of his small luxuries. Esther’s hand found the steak knife by her plate. She did not think of cutting herself — the MIMI would have intervened as soon as the thought formed. In the meantime, the MIMI would let her go, to see how far she’d run.

I will cut my hair.

Your hair is your one pride. You will not go so far.

She grabbed her hair, the whole lot of it, in her fist and began to slice, at the level of her neck.

Like fire, the MIMI grabbed her mind, her limbs. Esther whimpered as her fingers stretched open against her will. Her hands fell. She held a lock of red hair. That was all she’d been able to cut, before the MIMI stopped her.

So her hair was her pride. It had become the MIMI’s too.

They trod a fine line that week, Esther and the MIMI. The MIMI teased, letting Esther’s words flow, letting her taunt and provoke Grant. Letting her find and conceal knives and scissors, letting her get so close, then pulling up the strings at the last. The game, the thrill, was something new to the beast. Anticipation, risk, triumph. It risked more each time.

Grant could tell something was afoot. The transitions between the two personae came so quickly, so violently sometimes, as when the word “Grant” wrenched out around Esther’s clenched teeth. He began to tell the two of them apart, something he’d never bothered learning before. Sometimes, after only a word or two, “Grant” spoken in a certain self-assured tone of voice, he knew his lover had returned.

He loved her, he slept. Esther raised herself on an elbow and looked at him, spoke a word to test herself, thought angry, teasing thoughts at him, so the MIMI wouldn’t guess.

“Grant.” She nudged him awake. She retrieved the latest kitchen knife she’d smuggled and hidden under the mattress. The MIMI watched closely to see how far she could go.

Very carefully, she adjusted the tone of her voice, so he could not tell. She’d heard the MIMI often enough. She could mimic it. Slowly, he woke. He watched her; her body was tense.

She put the knife in his hand, pressing his fingers closed around it.

“Grant. Cut Esther’s hair. I tire of it.”

She hadn’t been sure how he would react, if he would refuse, if he would ask questions. As it was, he couldn’t have done better if she had guided his hand herself. He took the whole of her hair in his fist and cut at the neck, sawing at it, before the MIMI could make her move, before it could stop him with a word. All his anger at her — at Esther — surged out in the cut, as though the innocuous action would sever the girl from the computer, separate the two forever.

Esther pulled back with a laugh; her hair ripped away.

Then, the MIMI learned disbelief. Then uncertainty, embarrassment, loss — even fear, that Esther had the ability to win the little game, which raised the concern of what else she might do. So many emotions one upon the other.

It was only hair. Only a small loss, a temporary loss. This Esther knew; the computer hadn’t learned yet. It hadn’t ever lost, or dealt with the accompanying grief. But Esther — she had a world of experience with the emotions of loss and fear. These experiences, these memories, she flung at the MIMI. It wanted to learn. It wanted to feel. So let it.

Ike’s face. She couldn’t see his face. Because it was covered with blood. She reached out from her hiding place under the table, touched his face, tried to wipe away the blood. And no — she couldn’t touch his face because it wasn’t there. She didn’t stop screaming until they sedated her.

Ironically, Ike had been the one to clean her up. She’d been kicked out of the house — she didn’t remember why. Or had she run away? She’d couldn’t recall much about that time; she’d been high all the time. It was the only way to shut out the voices of the world. But Ike believed her, when she said what she could do. He cleaned her up and used her. She owed him a lot.

She could smell the blood, his blood, mixed with the smell of burning. Voices. Spotlights. They wanted to kill her, the police. They all wanted to, but she wasn’t holding a gun, so they couldn’t. She lay curled up by Ike, screaming.

Her throat slit, her blood flowing, creeping over her cheek to her scalp. The dream had become more and more vivid over the years. The MIMI had dreamed with her, it understood dreams. But not how real they could seem in the face of such terror.

It screamed against the flood of horrors with which Esther filled her senses. A synapse in its network misfired. Or something. Perhaps a silicon stroke. The minions never learned exactly what.

The green light on the box in the basement winked out.

Esther sat silent, tangled in sheets, frozen in her own moment of disbelief. Her mind opened, a sky blown clear after a storm. The beast had fled.

Grant knelt on the bed, naked and primitive, hefting the knife in one hand and the dead mass of her red hair in the other, like murdered prey.

Esther’s head was suddenly weightless, like air, like a balloon lifting off her shoulders, with a tickling fringe of hair brushing her chilled neck. She shook her head; clear, all clear and free.

“I killed it!” She grinned at Grant. “It’s dead, and you can’t love it anymore!”

Grant stared for a moment, gripping the knife so the tendons showed white on his hands. Then he threw her hair at her and went off for his clothes, to go to the basement to see if she was right.

Esther found a robe, wrapped herself up. She had to run. She had nowhere to run. She didn’t care. Finally, she felt light enough to run.

Grant only needed a second to confirm what Esther had declared in such a loud, joyous voice.

“No. No, no!” His voice grew louder as he flew up the stairs.

He caught her in the dining room. He only wore pants. His bare chest, pale and smooth, heaved.

She ran through a set of french doors which opened onto a tiny balcony. Five feet from the ground and surrounded by holly shrubs, it was the kind of balcony where in another century a woman in a silk gown might have leaned over the iron railing to say farewell to her beloved. The railing, crafted to shape decorative ivy tendrils, trapped Esther.

She leaned back against the railing as Grant came at her. He still held the knife clutched in his hand.

Her hair was cut, a ragged fringe at her neck. It tossed in the air instead of drifting, graceful. Now where would the blood flow?

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