There was something odd going on at the Suslikov estates, Yevgeny thought. For all the reassuring normality of his back-and-forth with Gennady, his little brother had become a little strange since the accident and his subsequent rebuild.
The artificial lung that kept him alive after the boiler explosion had been their last collaboration before their father passed away; a combination of Yevgeny’s steam power and Gennady’s own clockworks intended to aid victims of mining accidents. It was a tragic irony that they had ended up using the device on one of its creators.
After their father Boris Timofeyevich had passed four years back, Yevgeny had to relocate to Muskograd to manage the family’s commercial interests there, and it seemed to be from that point that the strangeness began to creep in.
It was not just the elongated cricketlike legs that he stalked around on now, though that seemed symptomatic of the change. When Yevgeny had left he was getting around in a wheeled chair; now he had made himself clockwork legs. But it wasn’t the fact that he had clockwork legs so much as the uncanny nature of their design. Yevgeny couldn’t imagine the old Gennady opting for such an outré set of artificial legs.
The estates, too, seemed different to how he remembered them. The chimneys belched smoke constantly, but you never saw any of the serfs that tended the boilers. And what exactly was he doing with all that steam power anyway? He’d mostly eschewed steam in favour of his beloved clockworks for as long as Yevgeny could remember. Certainly since the accident, which was completely understandable. Clockworks had no boilers to explode and maim you.
They were still teasing one another just like they always used to, but there seemed to be a bitter edge to it. That was understandable up to a point; Gennady had been left alone to manage the Orengrad estates and brood over his injury. But the fact that they could engage in the old back-and-forth made Yevgeny think there was more to it than that.
Like the secretiveness. Gennady had never kept things from him like this before; they’d collaborated as much as they competed, and there had been numerous times when one brother’s insights helped the other one’s project. Now… That whatever-it-was he had almost said and then changed his mind about. What was he hiding?
And was it anything to do with that Lieutenant of Dragoons what-was-his-name? Zheleznikov?’s suppressed parting smirk? There was an unhappy thought. General Chebelev was a Kisaliev vassal, if he remembered right. What if Gennady was-?
No. Whatever was going on, it wouldn’t be that. Gennady was still a Suslikov, and even though he hated the politics of the Boyar Duma and the tortuous webs of alliance and rivalry between the noble houses, that enmity was too old and ingrained to be cast aside.
Yevgeny sat in his old workroom and brooded over the matter. But he couldn’t get to the bottom of it without more information.
One of the Suslikov serfs tottered in with a broom, breaking his train of thought. He remembered her as one of the household servants; maybe she could fill him in on what had happened in his absence.
“It’s Svetlana, isn’t it?” he asked her, smiling brightly. The young woman smiled back nervously. “Remember me? I’d like to ask you a few questions, if I may.”
Svetlana nodded, then with a clacking sound a slip of tickertape extruded from her mouth. She reached up and handed it to him.
:: I remember you Master Yevgeny :: You are the Boyar :: The brother of Master Gennady :: Ask your questions ::
Yevgeny gaped. Was this an automaton? If it was, then Gennady had leaped far ahead of him in mechanical ability! And to marry an automaton’s internal workings with a covering of living tissue? Incredible!
But would an automaton have Svetlana’s memories? More likely she had been the victim of some kind of accident and Gennady had repaired her with some sort of biologically-integrated mechanik.
“What happened to you?” he asked. “Did Gennady do this to you?”
:: Yes :: the tickertape said. :: Master Gennady made me what I am ::
“Why? Was there some kind of accident?” he asked, but Svetlana was silent. “Not an accident? On purpose?”
Again, Svetlana said nothing, but her eyes answered for her. Help me, they seemed to say.
“Are there more like you?” Yevgeny asked with a sick feeling in his throat. Bad enough that he had done something like this to one person, but what if it wasn’t just one? What if he and this Svetlana were not the only recipients of his biomechanical ministrations?
:: Yes :: Most of House Suslikov’s serfs are now biomechanical constructs :: Zhizniks :: Master Gennady’s experiments have borne much fruit ::
The fact of Gennady’s creation of these zhizniks was disturbing enough, but more troubling was Svetlana’s blank acceptance of the situation. If it had been him transformed like this, he didn’t think he’d be able to accept it so calmly. Still, Svetlana was a serf. She didn’t have a lot of say in her life even at the best of times.
“What else has he been up to?”
:: I am just a housekeeper Master Yevgeny :: she replied, handing him the tickertape. :: I do not know the Young Master’s secrets :: … :: You must ask one of the other zhizniks ::
Yevgeny considered. “Is there any particular one of you zhizniks I should talk to?” he asked, vowing silently that he would get to the bottom of this.
:: Master Yevgeny you must not be concerned for me :: Svetlana’s tickertape said. :: I am what I am :: It is done and can not be undone :: Nichevo ::
Nichevo. It couldn’t be helped. The litany of Orousska’s serfs.
She swept the broom once around the room and headed for the door.
:: Speak to Vitaly :: she said.