Steampunk takes on Southeast Asia in this anthology The stories in this collection merge technological wonder with the everyday. Children upgrade their fighting spiders with armor, and toymakers create punchcard-driven marionettes. Large fish lumber across the skies, while boat people find a new home on the edge of a different dimension. Technology and tradition meld as the people adapt to the changing forces of their world. The Sea Is Ours is an exciting new anthology that features stories infused with the spirits of Southeast Asia's diverse peoples, legends, and geography.
This collection of stories focuses on steampunk from Southeast Asia, and the result is a mix of terrific, interesting tales that often go in unexpected directions. Editors Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng did a terrific job of assembling stories, and this was, to my mind, one of the best anthologies of 2015. – Cat Rambo
"The standouts are the three central pieces: Kate Osias's 'The Unmaking of the Cuadro Amoroso,' in which an enclave of prodigies takes revenge on imperial war machines; Olivia Ho's 'Working Woman,' reexamining Frankenstein's monster amid the multicultural power brokers of Singapore; and Robert Liow's 'Spider Here,' a hard-SF adventure with a suicide bomber, illegal fights, and a disabled schoolgirl protagonist. Even the slighter stories have the craft, perspective, and components that merit savoring, and the finest would be worth considering for any year's best anthology."– Publishers Weekly
The Unmaking of The Cuadro Amoroso
The four of us found each other in the Facultad de Ciencias; four so very different people in our approach to scientific exploration, and yet the core of our passions so very much the same, that we bonded quickly and irrevocably.
There was Cristan, a gastronomist, with his distinctive arsenal of flavors made unique by the quintaesencia of nontraditional materials. There was Maren, a machinist, with her coiled toroid constructions which simplified and amplified the flow power in the galleon de cielos that adorned the skies. There was Hustino, a pianist, who sought elaborate melodic solutions to the mathematical theories embodied in the Cancion del Universo. And then there was me, a dancer, who aspired to defy the prescribed laws of fisica through self-augmentation and movement.
We were considered prodigies of our generation, young stars set on a trajectory to become greater than the esteemed catedraticos of the colonia, and thus we were accorded favors that our less-accomplished peers could only dream about, from workshops equipped with tools of our craft, casas that protected us from the prying eyes of contemporaries, to indulgent allowances for our sometimes volatile eccentricities. By day we would study and experiment and teach and learn and rail (against the finite nature of time, against the limitations of flesh, against the vast swaths of knowledge we had yet to conquer despite our superior intellect). At night, we would spend our remaining stores of energy in a mesh of limbs and tongues and moans, a careless prayer to motion and taste and sound and interlocking parts combining to become whole.
We pretended to comply with the conventions of the common, but beneath the glamour of our triumphs, inside a hidden sanctum where censorious eyes could not find us, we rebelled against the strictures imposed on us by the sons and daughters of la Madre Patria. And in our foolishness, we even gave our clandestine relationship a name: Cuadro Amoroso.
"Oh, Zolen. Could we have not selected something more sophisticated?" the ghost of Maren asks, as she drifts beside me on my right, appearing like a dark-skinned Madonna with her long, flowing hair.
"Nothing wrong with the name," the specter of Cristan says, as he floats to my left, the scent of spiced bread settling about him like a fragrant fog. "By twisting a popular idiom, we imply a question which is answered by the nomenclature itself."
"Says the man who convinced us to take it on in the first place." But Maren is laughing and Cristan laughs as well, as he has become less solemn in the afterlife, and they continue to talk and tease each other about names and choices and the questions we never really asked ourselves because it did not matter in the greater landscape of our emotions.
With deliberate strokes, I dab and smear and blend paint on my face, my focus seemingly centered on my reflection. But as Cristan and Maren punctuate their banter with laughter and flirtatious caresses, my copper-springed heart cannot help but rejoice, cannot help but break a little more. I hear them, but they are not truly there. They are wisps of memory, mere phantoms conjured to give me courage for what I have to do, for what I will do.
The glimmer of Hustino comes just as I complete my mask of pigment and dye, the pulsing lines beneath my skin well-concealed. Maren and Cristan welcome him with smiles, easily folding him into the embrace of their conversation. Despite my resolutions to ignore the apparitions, I take an unnecessary pause. When Hustino puts his hands on my shoulders, I close my eyes. Intoxicated by the smells and sounds of the past, I let myself sink deeper into the illusion of his fingers, his clever, elegant fingers, tapping a familiar sonata on my skin.
"Come, Zolen," he says, his voice resounding from deep within me. "It is time."
Soon, I say by leaning back against thin air, deeper into the mirage-Hustino's embrace. Let me finish this, as I draw Hustino's ghostly hands over the flesh that shields my copper-springed heart.For us.
I linger for one more moment. Then, I stand up and walk out the door to my final performance.
Our end began not with the unwitting discovery of our secret, but with music.
Hustino had just committed himself to unlocking the 27th movement of the Cancion del Universo, a year after his debut performance of the Cancion's 32nd. The rest of us only had a fledgling understanding of the mathematics involved, but what we knew, what everyone knew, was that maestros spent entire lifetimes attempting to recreate a single part of the Great Song. Few succeeded; fewer still emerged triumphant with two movements under their belt. No one but the first Maestro Matematico—whose archaic musical notation was the basis for all modern interpretations of the Cancion—has been known to execute the impossibly complex piece in its entirety, and even then, the retellings of his performance had the sheen of myth rather than the clarity of fact.
Still, Hustino was Hustino. At eighteen, he had succeeded in solving the mathematical mysteries of the 32nd movement in front of the colonia's elite which included the Gobernador-General, her coterie of paramours and advisors and her small legion of guardia sibil; the embajadors of Tsina, Hindustan, Inglatera and Mejico, and their respective babel of translators; high-ranking doctors of faith from the rival Facultad de Certeza; and us, Cristan, Maren and myself, under the guise of like-minded peers to appease narrow-minded conservatives. The performance was widely acclaimed not just because of Hustino's age—although certainly that, in itself, was already a noteworthy accomplishment—but also because he had caused a rare and sought-after effect: the alma parpadear.
At the climactic crescendo (after the lengthy introductions, after several opening sonatas, after one loud cantata) every one of us who was then present—from the lowliest starch-collared bureaucrat to the bejeweled, acting sovereign of the colonia—felt a sharp shift in the ground beneath us, an internal trembling so intense that it seemed as if our hearts had ceased to beat and our minds had conceded all rational thought while our souls, our traitorous souls, in sublime accord, laid bare our most guarded, our most terrible of secrets to unite us with the music as it surged and swelled and assaulted and claimed and sundered and soothed and triumphed and faded and thundered again. When Hustino's performance finally ended—as it had to, eventually—we all were left feeling raw but cleansed.
An alma parpadear is a consequence of the Cancion done right, but no maestro, and especially not an aspiring one born in one of the colonias, would have attempted to affect so large a crowd. Hustino, being Hustino, explained the science afterward, when we had sufficiently recovered, when he had begun conversing again, when he had stopped wielding his genius through melody and when we, his audience, had been mollified by the realization that we remembered very little—and certainly none of the details—of our unwitting mathematics-driven confessionals.
"Resonant frequency, nothing more," he said, obviously pleased with the destruction he had wrought to our inner workings. "We all have our own unique internal frequency, but like all sound, it can be calibrated, adjusted, reset. The Cancion was written to unite people in a single wave. Theoretically, if you solve it and play it correctly, the music will create an encompassing language that is bereft of deceit and subterfuge; a language free of bias; a language to bind us all into one thought, one voice, one sound."
The carefully-worded invitations—written in florid script and invoking the beauty of the universe as preordained by the Arquitecto Sagrado—arrived shortly after Hustino announced his intention to work on the 27th movement.
Hustino, as was his wont, ignored them. Sound was an unforgiving mistress, and most of his days were spent analyzing velocity vectors, even going as far as abandoning his other fields of study. The catedraticos were lenient because of what Hustino had accomplished, even without the titular designation of maestro.
The missives, however, were less merciful, more insistent, as unrelenting as a noonday sun. With each letter unanswered, there was a proportionate increase in the rumors of heresy practiced within the walls of the Ciencias. Everyone knew the supplicants of Certeza perpetuated these false tales. Everyone knew that the malicious gossip would not stop until Hustino agreed to meet the doctors of faith.
It was an exceptionally humid night, the air thick with the promise of rains that would not come, when Cristan finally spoke out.
"Hustino. Can you not spare the time to meet with these self-aggrandizing fools? Perhaps they merely want you to play them a minuet; perhaps they merely want to congratulate you on your success. As it is now, they are taking your refusal as an insult to not just the healing arts, but also to the faith." Cristan stretched out past Maren to stroke Hustino's bare thigh, his fingertips grazing the sensitive inner part in a slow caress to take the sting out of his words. "Hearing them out can help relieve the tension."
We had just been reborn from the encompassing consumption of lovemaking, our skins gleaming with sweat, our eyes heavy-lidded. Despite our bodies' relaxed states, tension was quick to bloom, then twist out from Hustino. Connected as we were in a complex embrace, it was difficult to miss the pianist's discomfort.
"Now, now, my love, none of that," Maren said, smiling against Hustino's skin. "You know an encounter with the odious healers would be inevitable after your incredible success with the 32nd."
I concurred by letting my legs tangle with his, executing a gentler version of enganche to articulate my support while still arguing for the only rational course of action.
After a moment, Hustino laughed, effectively dispelling the awkward moment with his good-humored surrender. "Who am I to go against the will of the Cuadro Amoroso?" Then he turned to accept Cristan's open-mouthed kiss and I saw, from the way he shifted his shoulders to the way his muscles contracted, that he was no longer thinking about doctors and inconvenient invitations. No other discussion of the coherent sort occurred again that evening.
And so it was that Hustino took time away from calculating fractions of octaves to meet with the doctors of faith from the Facultad de Certeza. When he returned, he was irritably upset.
"They want to use the Cancion's alma parpadear to make sheep!" Hustino all but shouted. "The bastards are claiming the Arquitecto Sagrado wills it so. The fools."
Hustino plunged himself deeper into his craft, rebuffing all further requests from the good doctors, turning a deaf ear to the increasingly violent altercations that erupted between the students of science and faith. When he was not in his workshop testing the tonality of string, he was translating musical notations, transposing keys, trying out solutions that sounded bitter and dissonant. It was obvious to us that he was distressed, that there was an unpleasant aftertaste he was trying to wash out of his system with his work. Often, his raging emotions came out as furious, wood-breaking, paper-crumpling frustration; sometimes, it came out as genius, as he made considerable headway with the 27th by exploring musical avenues that he would have disregarded in more pleasant times.
Cristan, Maren, and I dealt with Hustino's ill-temper in our own inimitable ways. Cristan worked on constructing a modified ash-furnace that could distill not just ordinary ingredients, but metals as well, reflecting Hustino's determined efforts to build a set of ivory keys with perfect tonality. Maren, on the other hand, adjusted and dissected and tinkered with the coupling gaps of coiled transformers, as though Hustino's manic compulsions to measure and re-measure amplitude against frequency fed her own. While I, who trafficked in the unspoken, who was fascinated by the pianist's frenetic grace, attempted to interpret Hustino's motions by adjusting the kinematic chains on my arms and legs, loosening certain joints for a certain degree of freedom, imposing a slider where it was unexpected, to better mimic abrupt movement.
Before Hustino's encounter with the doctors could blend into a harmless, blurred memory, colorfully-attired dignitaries of various origins began to visit, carrying with them their strange accents and their strange smells and their strange tributes, tainting the quality of the air in Hustino's workshop even long after they had left and their offerings been thrown away. Hustino refused to meet with any of the embajadors, regardless of their representatives' nuanced greetings or the exquisite detail of their gifts. During this period, the import and export of goods with the colonia's neighbors became more restrictive, more bureaucratic. Everyone believed that the so-called friends of la Madre Patria were the cause of the sudden difficulty in trade. Everyone believed that Hustino alone had the power to appease.
A storm was spewing large, angry raindrops outside when Maren broached the subject.
"Oh, Hustino. The embajadors are silly inconveniences, are they not? But we may wish to travel to their lands someday, to see their sun, to see the way their stars glisten in their skies, to feel their winds that make their features so," Maren said, punctuating her words with feather-light kisses down Hustino's neck. "What harm can a courtesy call do?"
It had been an exhausting day for all of us, and the night had almost yielded us nothing in terms of gratification, as our usual foreplay did little to whet our appetites. Eventually, however, like tightly-coiled spring that was suddenly unwound, we found a release so intense we were left bone-weary and empty. Collapsed as we were in our last configuration—with me and Maren draped over the torsos of the men—it was easy for us to sense Hustino's immediate resistance.
"Do not say no without considering the resources we may not have access to," Cristan, always the serious one, said. "The best ebony cannot, unfortunately, be found in the colonia."
I stated my case by letting my palm glide down from Hustino's chest to his hip bone and up again, a torturously slow caricia that tells him that he was free to do as he would, but there were consequences he had to be aware of.
Hustino drew a deep breath, then slowly exhaled it. "Anything for the Cuadro Amoroso," he said, smiling tenderly as he brushed a wayward wisp of hair away from Maren's face. When he settled his weight more deeply into the bed, I knew that he had already forgiven us for our meddling.
And so it was that Hustino took time away from projecting the undertone blend of key musical sequences to meet with the each of the embajadors in their marbled palaces. When he came back from his forced tour of the houses of Tsina, Hindustan, Inglatera and Mejico, he was deeply troubled.
"Weapons," Hustino said, almost tonelessly. "They want to make a weapon out of the Cancion. They did not believe me when I said—and will say—no to all of them. They are thinking of nothing but war."
Hustino turned further inward, eschewing company that was not absolutely necessary for his work, completing his transformation into an irritable recluse who cared little for the complaints sounded by local and foreign merchants, or for the palpable animosity between the students of Certeza and Ciencia. His mental anguish inevitably rippled its effect outward to us, but where his creative endeavors suffered, ours thrived.
Cristan used his refashioned ash-furnaces to distill the quintaesencia of gold, which he further laced with the calx of wine, letting the precious metal's subtle tones elevate the addictive qualities of the alcohol, even as Hustino reverted to previously mastered scales. Maren constructed a galleon de cielo large enough to carry four, a steamless beast made of wood and metal, powered by dynamos and an apparatus of coils that transmitted blue pulses from one end to the other, even as Hustino wrote and rewrote rudimentary harmonic equations. I began performing the choreography Hustino inspired, my movements harsh one moment, smooth and languid the next, and pained, always, always pained, because creativity was an agonizing exercise of loneliness, even as Hustino diminished in mass and in spirit, becoming a frail approximation of the man he once was.
We did our best to bring joy back to our Hustino, but despite tasting Cristan's blissful concoctions sprinkled with gilded wine, despite riding on Maren's steamless galleon, despite seeing so many weep at my depiction of his artistry, the pianist remained inconsolable.
We were converged in our secret retreat, letting the cool breeze tinted with hymns and carols do what it could to soothe the red slashes on our skins, when I finally articulated my thoughts.
Hustino, I said by caressing the pianist's waist with my leg, a simple piernazo to call his attention and to prepare him for the rest of what I had to say. The Gobernador-General herself will ask something from you. You will not like it. I execute a gancho by hooking my leg around his thigh, then slowly letting it slide in a graceful lustrada, expressing through the trap and release motion the truth of our situation.
Say yes, I begged by pulling him into a closer embrace, or, if you are truly unwilling, let us escape. Let us find a new beginning away from here.
Hustino had not been Hustino for weeks, and the tenor of our nightly carnal pursuits had changed in the absence of the man we knew. It had become more violent, his expression of the act almost cruel, often brutal, sometimes unbearably vicious. But there was still sexual satisfaction, even a painful variant of pleasure. But perhaps the most important reward occurred afterward, when the ropes had been untied, when the whips had been set aside, when the gags had been thrown away, and Hustino returned to being Hustino, all the anger drained out of him, leaving only a pensive type of tenderness. It was the unguarded look in his face, along with the loving way he caressed the welts on my wrists, that gave me courage to speak.
But Hustino's answer was as adamant, as immovable, as unyielding as the grave, and it was immediate.
"No," Hustino said, as he turned away from me.
"Hustino, perhaps you do not completely understand—" Cristan began.
"I understand." Hustino stood up. "I understand perfectly."
"My love, please—"
"In this, the Cuadro Amoroso has no say." And then, he left.
The guardia sibil came for Hustino the next day. Dangerous-looking, heavy-coated men with their elaborate swords and oversized pistols, they knocked on Hustino's door, parroted the command of the Gobernador-General, and asked him to accompany them to an undisclosed location. Hustino did not struggle; instead, he relented with the grace of a doomed man. And we, purportedly the ones who loved him the most, could only watch from our respective windows, unable to help, unable to stop them, unable to do anything but wish things had gone differently.
Hustino was gone for seven days; when he was returned, he was barely alive.
We did our best to medicate him, but though Cristan distilled the healing essences of herbs; though Maren revived his heart numerous times with sparked coils; though I added mechanical joints and replaced broken bone with sturdy metal, there was not much improvement in Hustino's condition. We were scientists, not doctors, and the sum of our brilliance could not equal the healing arts practiced by the faithful. And if there were lore in the neighboring powers that could have helped in Hustino's recuperation, those doors were closed to us as well.
In the end, all we could do was stand vigil.
How I wished Hustino could have spoken; how I re-imagined those times to be filled with tender goodbyes or sunset-tinged rememberings instead of mournful quietude. But Hustino was unable to express anything in words, and his fingers were too irreparably broken to express his horrors in music. Whatever the Gobernador-General had the guardia sibil do to him, it was, in many ways, worse than immediate death. It was as if Hustino had gone through the antithesis of an alma parpadear where, instead of being united into a greater thought and a grander dream, he was instead disassembled and methodically dismantled, until his heart was just a cluster of malfunctioning valves, his mind a maze of shadows and nightmares, and his soul a tattered assembly of memories. Near the end of his days, Hustino became increasingly silent, worryingly still, as if his core had drifted into a vacuum where no sound could exist, terribly alone, terribly beyond our reach.
When he died, Cristan, Maren and I began to plan.