Something slid past, ten centimeters from her face. An ornate silver spoon, sawn precisely in half, from end to end.
She had no idea how long she’d been there, when the sereen lit and began to flicker. Hours, minutes . . . She’d already learned to negotiate the chamber, after a fashion, kicking off like Jones from the dome’s concavity. Like Jones, she faught herself on the thing’s folded, jointed arms, pivoted and hung there, watching the swirl of debris. There were dozens of the arms, manipulators, tipped with pliers, hexdrivers, knives, a subminiature circular saw, a dentist’s drill . . . They bristled from the alloy thorax of what must once have been a construction remote, the sort of unmanned, semiautonomous device she knew from childhood videos of the high frontier. But this one was welded into the apex of the dome, its sides fused with the fabric of the Place and hundreds of cables and optic lines snaked across the geodesies to enter it. Two of the arms, tipped with delicate force-feedback devices, were extended; the soft pads cradled an unfinished box.
Eyes wide, Marly watched the uncounted things swing past.
A yellowing kid glove, the faceted crystal stopper from some vial of vanished perfume, an armless doll with a face of French porcelain, a fat, gold-fitted black fountain pen, rectangular segments of perf board, the crumpled red and green snake of a silk cravat . . . Endless, the slow swarm, the spinning things . . .
. . .
“I came to be, here. Once I was not. Once, for a brilliant time, time without duration, I was everywhere as well . . . But the bright time broke. The mirror was flawed. Now I am only one . . . But I have my song, and you have heard it. I sing with these things that float around me, fragments of the family that funded my birth. There are others, but they will not speak to me. Vain, the scattered fragments of myself, like children. Like men. They send me new things, but I prefer the old things. Perhaps I do their bidding. They plot with men, my other selves, and men imagine they are gods . . .
“You are the thing that Virek seeks, aren’t you?”
No. He imagines that he can translate himself, code his personality into my fabric. He yearns to be what I once was; What he might become most resembles the least of my broken selves . . .
“Are you — are you sad?”
“But your — your songs are sad.”
My songs are of time and distance. The sadness is in you. Watch my arms. There is only the dance. These things you treasure are shells.
“I — I knew that. Once.”
But now the sounds were sounds only, no forest of voices behind them to speak as one voice, and she watched the perfect globes of her tears spin out to join forgotten human memories in the dome of the boxmaker.
“I understand,” she said, sometime later, knowing that she spoke now for the comfort of hearing her own voice. She spoke quietly, unwilling to wake to the bounce and ripple of sound. “You are someone else’s collage. Your maker is the true artist. Was it the mad daughter? It doesn’t matter. Someone brought the machine here, welded it to the dome, and wired it to the traces of memory. And spilled, somehow, all the worn sad evidence of a family’s humanity, and left it all to be stirred, to be sorted by a poet. To be sealed away in boxes. I know of no more extraordinary work than this.