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A Felony of Birds

Harris Tobias
The Greer Agency

Harris Tobias

Harris Tobias
Time Wars & other SciFi Tales

Gordon Rowlinson

The Beautiful People


Michael Peralta

The night before her century party, Lady Ashleigh summoned her servant Martha to her chambers. After fifty years of service, although most of it had been spent in the gleaming kitchens of her mistress, Martha knew her way around the mansion as if she had been born there. (Some of the younger servants had been born there.)

Up the service elevator, all metal efficiency, to the grand hallway. Today it was scented with jasmine. The windows, twice as tall as Martha, gave a view of the formal garden. A pair of squat servos trimmed the grass silently, avoiding Lady Ashleigh's flock of mutant peafowl. The tails of the hens were as magnificent as those of their mates. One of the servos passed too close to a preening hen, who screamed like a murdered woman.

The hallway led to a starburst of alabaster corridors, leading to various salons, ballrooms, and dining areas. Martha followed the one leading to Lady Ashleigh's private rooms. The door whispered open as she approached. Its monitors were familiar with the scent of her DNA, and her mistress had obviously programmed it to admit her.

Lady Ashleigh's withdrawing room was empty, save for a mechanical butterfly that fluttered toward Martha. It was programmed to approach any guests who entered the room and welcome them with a burst of song. It landed on Martha's shoulder and sang "In questa reggia" from Turandot in a rich soprano.

"In here," Lady Ashleigh said from her bedroom. Her voice had been adjusted to be sweet and high, like that of a young girl. Perhaps she was preparing it for the party tomorrow. Martha entered the almond-scented bedroom. It was softly lit by unseen glowscreens, hidden behind coral banners of silk and linen. Lady Ashleigh reclined in a chaise lounge, her youthful body half-revealed by a filmy pink nightgown.

"You summoned me, mistress." Martha lowered her eyes and made a clumsy attempt at a curtsy. She felt out of place in her food-stained kitchen clothes. "Is it about tomorrow's menu?"

"No, no." Lady Ashleigh sat up a little. "I'm sure that will be fine. I have a little surprise for you. After all, it isn't every day that a girl turns one hundred." She held one hand in front of her face and laughed quietly. Her nails were painted pale blue, to match her hair. "Come closer."

Martha approached. She watched her mistress reach for a tiny jeweled handbag on the chaise longue. Lady Ashleigh pulled a milky sphere from the bag.

"Do you know what this is?"

"No, mistress."

"It's the most wonderful thing in the world." Lady Ashleigh took her servant's hand. "Only for my little pet." She held the sphere over Martha's hand and crushed it with her slender fingers. It shattered into a white powder that covered Martha's hand like flour. Within a few seconds it had disappeared, absorbed into her body.

Martha felt fire and ice dancing inside the bones of her hand. The sensation soon spread throughout her body. She closed her eyes and tried not to faint.

"Isn't it amazing?" Lady Ashleigh's voice seemed far away. "Billions and billions of tiny little machines, happily working away to make us pretty. It isn't exactly illegal for me to share it with you, but it will have to be our little secret. Now we'll be together for years and years and years. Open your eyes, my precious little doll."

At first Martha thought that something had happened to Lady Ashleigh's face, to make it small and sad. Then she realized that she was looking into a mirror that her mistress held before her. Gone were the round cheeks and sweating red skin she so often saw reflected in steel pots. Instead she was a perfect miniature of her mistress, from her flawless skin to her ripe lips. It was a face that would not age for many decades to come. Even the tears which glistened in her cat-green eyes were beautiful.

"What do you think of my little surprise?" Lady Ashleigh smiled.

There was only one acceptable response. "I love you, mistress."

Lady Ashleigh embraced her. Martha spent the rest of the evening pleasuring the body of her mistress.


Plans for the grand festivities celebrating Lady Ashleigh's hundredth birthday went smoothly. Martha's transformation into the image of her mistress caused quite a bit of astonishment among the kitchen staff, of course. They assumed it was a superficial and temporary change, created by Lady Ashleigh's clever skinchangers and bodyshapers. Only Martha knew that the alteration went deep into each cell, and that it would last the rest of her life, which might be centuries. She would watch her fellow servants be born and die, while she continued to obey the whims of her unaging mistress.

Not long after dawn hovers began arriving with supplies. Exotic produce from thousands of kilometers away made its way into the kitchen, carried by servos or human hands. Mutant durians, their sweet flavor and creamy texture preserved, but their disagreeable odor removed. Rainbow spears of asparagus. Warm-smelling threads of saffron, blazing scarlet. There was even an aluminum chest full of dry ice surrounding several kilograms of real beef wrapped in white parchment.

Martha had spent an hour or two supervising the preparation of the celebratory meal when she received an unexpected message from her mistress. It was rare for a holo to appear in the kitchen, so she was startled when a blazing point of light appeared before her eyes. It blossomed into a ghostly image of Lady Ashleigh, wavering like a reflection in troubled waters. Perhaps all the metals and electronics in the kitchen were interfering with the holo.

"I'd like you to come to the rose garden and greet our guests." Lady Ashleigh's voice was distorted into a mechanical whisper. "Won't you, my dear?" The holo vanished.

It was more than a suggestion. Martha pulled off her apron and did her best to make herself presentable. Fortunately, her uniform was freshly washed, and had not yet been stained with the blood of fruits and vegetables. She hurried to the service elevator and rode up to the maze of corridors.

The rose garden was on the eastern side of the mansion, the better to catch the morning light. Lady Ashleigh often walked there at sunrise and read poetry aloud to a favored servant. More than once Martha had been woken early to enjoy a recital from the Rubiyat or Leaves of Grass.

The massive French doors leading to the rose garden opened silently as Martha approached. Gravel paths danced among the flowers. The air was warm and fragrant. Lady Ashleigh stood near her favorite yellow roses, surrounded by a dozen party guests. Martha recognized Lord Hunter and Lord Dylan, as well as the twin sisters Lady Madison and Lady Candy, but the others were strangers to her. Private hovers floated through the deep blue sky like toys, as more guests approached the mansion.

"Come here, my love." Lady Ashleigh wore a tea dress of mirrorsilk. Martha saw the reflection of her new face as she approached. Lady Ashleigh had changed the color of her hair and nails to match the roses, and had darkened her skin to dusk, but there was no mistaking the resemblance between the mistress and the servant.

Lady Ashleigh bent down to kiss Martha's face. Like all the Lords and Ladies, she was nearly half a meter taller than her servant. She rose to her full height and faced her guests.

"Isn't she sweet?" Lady Ashleigh absently stroked Martha's hair with one slender hand.

"This is a bit much," Lord Hunter said. He was one of the most conservative of the Lords, with his skin left its natural deep brown and even a touch of gray in his hair.

"Oh, I don't know." Lord Dylan was all in white. Suit, skin, and hair were as pure as new snow, with only a hint of gold in his irises. "At least it's something new." He stooped to stare into Martha's eyes.

The two sisters, arrayed in soft pastels, giggled and whispered together.

"It's so wicked, Ash." Lady Madison's skin was the color of apple blossoms, her hair a deep cherry-red. "She almost looks like your very own child!"

"Such language," an unknown Lord said.

"Oh, don't be silly," Lady Candy said. Her hair and skin were as black as night, perhaps to display her interest in Lord Dylan. "Servants know all about having babies and things. That's what they do!" She shrieked with laughter at her own naughtiness. Martha felt blood rush to her face.

"She's my servant, and I shall be as kind to her as I please," Lady Ashleigh said proudly. She looked down at Martha. "Never mind what they say, dear. They're just jealous that they didn't think of it first. Let's go to the east ballroom. I want you to watch the dance."

The east ballroom was the smallest in the mansion. Its windows were set high, so that golden beams of morning sunlight streamed down into it. The parquet floor, of blonde wooden tiles, created a maze of diamonds and rectangles. An octet of candles floated near the ceiling, kept aloft by tiny hovers. The expense added little light, but much romance. The room was full of the scent of autumn leaves.

As the party entered the room, soft music began to play from hidden speakers. It was Ravel's Pavane For a Dead Princess, in the original version for solo piano. In just a few minutes the stately music ended. By this time all the guests were in their assigned places, as still as statues. Martha stood out of the way, in a corner of the room near the western entrance.

The music resumed, this time a lively tune from the English Renaissance. Hautboys and tabors filled with room with their rich, archaic sounds. The guests danced. They marched and bowed and turned, joined hands and released them, solemn and unsmiling. It was as if they had been replaced with graceful machines. Unwatched, Martha made her way out of the room and back to her kitchen.

On the way, she noticed that certain unseen monitors, normally silent in her presence, greeted her as if she were Lady Ashleigh. Apparently the virus-sized machines inside her cells had altered her genetic information in such a way that it fooled the mansion's sensors.

By now the preparations for the birthday feast were well underway. Martha's assistants were arranging leaves of baby field greens into multicolored spirals and drizzling aged vinegars on them. Tiny silver bowls were filled with lime sorbet, to clear the palate between courses. Vegetables were flash-roasted to perfection, and carved into amusing little sculptures. Some of the more experienced servants were meticulously combining seaweed, algae, and spices into something closely resembling caviar. Ovens were fragrant with fresh breads. Fruits and soy were combined into desserts that were even more delicious to look at than to eat.

Martha herself handled the preparation of the main course. It seemed most appropriate to present as rare an item as real beef in as simple a way as possible. She decided on steak tartare. The meat would be chopped finely, then mixed with pepper and capers. As a special touch, she would add fresh wild mushrooms, gathered from the kitchen garden.

A servo passed through the kitchen, carrying several bottles of wine from the cellar. This was the signal that the meal had begun. Martha and her assistants placed the various courses on other servos, programming them so that each item would arrive at the proper time. She was particularly careful with her steak tartare, which she would allow nobody else to handle.

After they had cleaned up the mess, Martha dismissed the other kitchen servants. By now the guests would be enjoying their final courses. Martha left the kitchen and went to the private rooms of her mistress. The security monitors still thought she was Lady Ashleigh, and admitted her with prerecorded greetings and bursts of birdsong. Martha entered the bedroom and lay upon Lady Ashleigh's cloud-soft bed. She issued special instructions to the mansion's primary control system and waited.

It was perhaps twelve hours later, not long before dawn, when Martha rose from the bed and made her way to the main dining room. The doors were still securely sealed, as she had commanded. With a word, they opened silently.

The room smelled of rotting food. There was also a sharper scent, from the guests who had soiled themselves during their last moments of life. The combination of the raw meat she had contaminated with filth from the kitchen and the poison mushrooms she had added to it had done their work. Not even the microscopic machines that kept the Lords and Ladies young and healthy could defeat them. Sealed off from the rest of the mansion, all forms of communication with the outside world blocked by Martha's instructions, they had died in isolation.

A few were still alive, including Lady Ashleigh. Martha made her way to where she lay on her side, bent into a broken doll. Her mirrored dress was stained with bloody vomit. Shallow breaths whispered from her pale lips. She lifted her head weakly to look at Martha with an unspoken question.

"Because I wanted to be just like you, mistress," Martha said. She left the room, not bothering to seal the doors. The other servants would discover them soon enough.

Martha made her way outside, and walked through perfumed gardens to where Lady Ashleigh stored her personal hovers. She selected the most powerful one, a violet sports model that Lady Ashleigh used for racing. It unlocked itself at her command, and she entered it. The control panel in front of her seat glowed with soft blue light.

"Good morning, mistress," it said in a sexless voice. "Where may I take you?"

"Up," Martha said.

The hover rose. Martha could see the sun starting to appear over the horizon as Lady Ashleigh's mansion shrank into a dollhouse.

"I am programmed to inform you that we have reached the maximum recommended altitude," the hover said.

"Override," Martha said. "Continue. Maximum speed."

The hover's engines hummed with power as it climbed into the sky. Martha could see the sun to one side, and stars to the other. She passed through wisps of cloud. The air was thin and cold. Soon it became difficult to breathe. She imagined cosmic rays pouring into her skin, burning it off, leaving only bones behind, pure and healed and clean. Clean. Clean. Clean. Clean. Clean.

Read more stories by this author

2011-08-24 06:22:35
Exquite SF! Lady Ashleigh probably took servant Martha for a dumb and obedient creature; but there was cold fire in her! The story reminded me of a classic SF story called "Dumb Martian" which I had read years ago. The plots are, of course, vastly different; but there is a similar leitmtif

2011-08-24 06:15:27
Exquisite SF! Lady Ashleigh thought that servant Martha was a dumb obedient creature. This story reminded me of a great SF story "Dumb Martian" which I read years ago. The plots are of course vastly different, but there is common leitmotif

2011-08-08 12:32:43
RossK - This is a wonderful story and I remember commenting when I reviewed it that it reminded me in many ways if the haughty and decadent feel of Michael Moorcock's 'Dancers at the End of Time.' The ending was especially poignant.

2011-08-06 00:11:38
Powerful imagery

2011-08-01 06:13:07
Exquisitely written! Thanks.

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