The Chrome Borne by Mercedes Lackey

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Black Rose. She’s beautiful. . . .

Tannim gestured at the lovely creature with his chin. “And that’s how Fairgrove is setting the pace in aero­dynamics, too. Put an elvensteed in a wind-tunnel, and alter the design by telling it what you want. No weeks of making body-bucks and laying fiberglass.” Tannim gloated, and Sam didn’t blame him. This was better even than computer modeling.

“But—you’re still racing now, with a real team—” Sam protested. “With real cars—real engines—”

“With every part we can manage being replaced with nonferrous materials,” Tannim told him. “That’s what we started doing even before the inspections. It was no challenge to race an elvensteed that can reach half the speed of sound against Tin Lizzies. It was a challenge to try and improve on human technology.”

Keighvin held up his hands, and only then did Sam notice he was wearing thin leather gloves, black to match his coverall. Sam also noted a black web belt and a delicate silver-and-silk-sheathed knife, more decorative than a tool. “And for those things that can’t be replaced by something other than iron and steel, well, some of us have built up a kind of tolerance to Death Metal. Enough that we can handle it if we’re protected—and we try not to work much magic about it.” He patted the horse’s neck. “I’ll explain the Laws of it all to you later—and how we’re breaking them.”

Tannim jumped down off the cabinet, catching Sam’s eye, and began pacing. Sam suspected he needed to ease an ache in that bad leg. “Racing and building cars was what lured the elvenkin out from Underhill,” he said. “But racing wasn’t the real reason that some of the elves wanted more of their company out in the human world, and to be more active in it.”

“Some didn’t approve—” Keighvin said.

“But most of Fairgrove did,” Tannim interjected. “And now we have to get into some old history. That’s Keighvin’s subject.”

The horse had turned back into a car again while Sam had been watching Tannim; Keighvin leaned back against its fender (flank?) and folded his arms.

“Do you have any idea why I confronted your father that night, Sam Kelly?” Keighvin asked. “Or what I was talking about, with your great-uncle and all?”

Sam blurted the first thing that came into his head. “The Fair Folk steal children—everybody knows that—”

A moment later he wanted to go hit his head against a wall. Now you’re for it, Sam Kelly. Why not go into a gay gym and tell the boys there that you’ve heard they seduce six-year-olds?

But strangely, Keighvin didn’t look the least bit angry “Aye, Sam, we steal children. The Seleighe Court does, at any rate. To save them. Children bein’ beaten within an inch of their lives, children bein’ left cold and hungry and tied t’ the bedpost all day, children bein’ sold and slaved. . . . Oh aye, we steal children. Whenever we can, whenever we know of one in danger of losing life or soul, or heart, and we can get at them, aye, we steal them.” Keighvin’s expression was dark, brooding. “We used to do other things, too. There are some problems, Sam, that can be fixed by throwing money at them, as you yourself were thinking earlier. Not all of those problems are technical, either. Do you mind some of the other stories your granny used to tell? About the leprechauns, or the mysterious strangers who gave gold where it was most needed?”

“Aye,” Sam replied, again falling into the brogue of his childhood, to match the lilt of Keighvin’s speech. “But those strangers were the holy saints, or angels in disguise, sent from the Virgin, she said—”

Keighvin snorted. “Holy saints? Is that what you mortal folk decided? Nay, Sam, ’twas us. At least, it was us when there were hungry children to feed, and naught to feed them with; when there was no fuel in the house, and children freezing. When some mortal fool sires children, but won’t be a father to them, leaving the mother to struggle alone. Our kind—we don’t bear as easily or ­often as you. Children are rare and precious things to us. We’re impelled to protect and care for them, even when they aren’t our own.”

Suddenly a great many of the old stories took on a whole new set of meanings. . . . But Keighvin was ­continuing.

“This isn’t the old days, though, when a stranger could give a poor lass a handful of silver and gold in return for a kindness. For one thing, the girl would be thought a thief, like as not, when she tried to trade it for paper money. For another, someone would want to track down whoever gave it to her. We have to truly, legitimately, earn money before we can give it away.”

Tannim shook his head in mock sadness. “Oh, now that’s a real pity, isn’t it—you elves having to work for a living. What’s the world coming to?”

Keighvin cast the young man a sharp glance. “One of these days, my lad, that tongue of yours is going to cast you into grief.”

Tannin chuckled, uncowed by the fire in Keighvin’s eye. “You’re too late, it already has.” He turned to Sam. “These boys can literally create anything, if they’ve studied it long enough beforehand. We’ve been making foamed aluminum engine blocks ever since Keighvin here got his hands on a sample from a Space Shuttle experiment.” He hopped back up onto his cabinet, crossing his legs like a Red Indian. “I’m not even going into how we got that. But, we’ve been using the stuff in our cars—now, can you imagine what we could charge some of the big boys to duplicate their designs in foamed cast aluminum?”

Indeed, Sam could. And the major racing teams had a great deal of money to play with. “So that’s why you set up this shop, Fairgrove Industries—but what do you need me for?”

“We need a front-man,” Tannim said, leaning forward in his eagerness to explain himself. “We need someone who can give a convincing explanation of how we’re doing all this, and show us how to create a setup that will at least look like we’re making the things by some esoteric process and not by magic.”

“But there isn’t any process—” Sam began. “There isn’t a firm in the world that could duplicate—”

Tannim waved a negatory hand in the air.

“It doesn’t matter if no one else can duplicate what we do,” he said blithely. “They’ll expect us to have trade ­secrets. We just need someone who knows all the right techno-babble, and can make it sound convincing. As long as you can come up with something that’s possible in theory, that’s all we need. We’ll keep on buying machines that go bing, and you leak tech reports to the curious.”

Sam couldn’t help himself; he started to laugh. Tannim and Keighvin both looked confused and surprised. “What’s so funny?” Tannim asked.

“Do you know much science fiction?” he asked, through his chuckles. Keighvin shook his head. Tannim shrugged. “A little. Why?”

“Because a very famous author, Arthur C. Clarke—who also happens to be one of the world’s finest scientists and engineers—said once that technology that’s complicated enough can’t be told from magic.”

“So?” Tannim replied.

Sam started laughing again. “So—sufficiently complex magic is indistinguishable from technology!”

Keighvin looked at Tannim for an explanation; the latter shrugged. “Beats me,” the young man said with a lopsided smile, as Sam wheezed with laughter. “Sometimes I don’t understand us either.”
It was nearly midnight when they’d gotten the basic shape of a plan hammered out. By then, they’d moved into Keighvin’s office—a wonderful place with a huge, plate-glass window that looked out into what seemed to be an absolutely virgin glade. The office itself was designed to be an extension of the landscape outside, with plants standing and hanging everywhere, and even a tiny fountain with goldfish swimming in it.

“Well, I’m going to have to go home and sleep on this,” Sam said, finally. “Then get into some of the journals and see what kind of a convincing fake I can concoct before I can definitely say I’ll take the job.”

He started to get up, but Keighvin waved him down again. “Not quite yet, Sam,” he said, his expression grave. “There’s just one thing more we need to tell you about. And you may decide not to throw in your lot with us after you’ve heard it.”

“Why?” he asked, a little surprised.

“Because Fairgrove has enemies,” Tannim supplied, from his own nook, surrounded by ferns. “Not ‘Fairgrove Indus­tries.’ I mean Elfhame Fairgrove, the Underhill Seleighe community here.” He leaned back a little. “Keighvin, I think the ball’s in your—ah—‘court.’ So to speak.”

Keighvin didn’t smile. “Sam, how much did your granny ever tell you about the Seleighe and Unseleighe Court elves?”

Sam had to think hard about that. Granny had died when he was barely ten; fifty-five years was a long time. And yet, her stories had been extraordinarily vivid, and had left him with lasting impressions.

“Mostly, she told stories with—I guess you’d say—good elves and bad elves. Elves who wanted to help humans, at least, and elves who wanted only to hurt them. She said you really couldn’t tell them apart, if you were a human child—that even human adults could be easily misled, and that sometimes even the good elves didn’t know who was good and who was bad. She said the Unseleighe Court even had agents in the Seleighe Court. She just warned me to steer clear of both if I ever met either kind, until I was old enough to defend myself, and could tell a glib lie from the truth.”

Keighvin nodded, his hair beginning to escape from the pony-tail. “Good enough. And that fairly sums it up. There’s the Seleighe Court—that’s us, and things like elvensteeds and dryads, selkies, pukas, owls, things that can pass as humans and things that never could. Oh, and there’s creatures native to this side of the water that have allied themselves with the Seleighe Court as well. And for the most part, the very worst one of us wishes is that the humans would go away.” The Sidhe looked out into the forest beyond the glass, but Sam had the feeling he was seeing something else entirely. “For the most part, we’re interested in coexisting with your kind, even if it forces us to have to change. Many of us are interested in helping your kind. We have the power of magic, but you have the twin powers of technology and numbers. One on one—you humans are no match for us. But population against population—we’ve lost before we even start.”

“All right,” Sam agreed. “I can see that. What about the Unseleighe Court?”

“They hate you, one and all,” Keighvin replied, somberly. “There are elves among them; and many, many things straight out of your worst childhood nightmares: bane-sidhe, boggles, trolls, things you’ve never heard of. The Morrigan is their Queen, and a terrible creature she is; she hates all things living, even her own people.” His eyes darkened with what looked to Sam like a distant echo of pain. “They hate us, too, for wanting to coexist with you; they’re constantly at war with us. They want you gone, and they’re active in fostering anything that kills you off. If you run across a human conflict that seems senseless, often as not, they have a hand in it. Not that you humans aren’t adept at creating misery for yourselves, but the Unseleighe Court has a vested interest in fostering that misery, and in propagating it. And they don’t like the idea that Fairgrove is a little further along the path of easing some of it.”

“All right so far,” Sam said, a little puzzled, “but what’s that got to do with me?”

“We have agents in their ranks, just as they have agents in ours,” Keighvin told him. “We’ve gotten word that some of their lot that can pass as human have found out what we’re planning, and are going to try to expose us as frauds.”

“It’ll be Preston Tucker all over again,” Tannim put in, his own expression grim. “Without someone with a spotless reputation fronting for us, they can do it, too. They can claim we’ve stolen our samples, that the engine blocks aren’t what we say they are, and that we have no real intention of manufacturing the products. It’s happened enough times in this industry that people are likely to believe it—especially with a bit of glamorie behind their words and a strong publicity campaign. Your actions will be the saving of us—as Keighvin’s was of you and your father.”

“No one’s ever heard of us, except as a racing team,” Keighvin said, leaning forward in his chair; giving Sam all of his attention. “But they know you. Your reputation can give us the time we need to actually build a few cus­tomers. Once we have that, it won’t matter what they say. They’ll have to come after us some other way. But there’s the danger. They will. And not only us, but you.”

Oddly enough, the threat to himself didn’t bother Sam. In fact, if anything, it added a little spice to the prospect. Terrorists and fanatics who threatened folk just because they were American frightened him; there was no predicting people like that, and there was something cold and impersonal about their enmity. Give him a real, honest enemy every time. You knew where you stood with a real enemy; you knew whose side you were on. After all, hating a country takes away its faces, but hating someone because of what he did was something he could get a grip on.

“To tell you the truth,” Tannim put in, “I’d have been a lot more worried before I saw how you’ve got your home defenses rigged. Even a creature with magic is going to have trouble passing them. And once I add my two cents’ worth, I think you’ll be in fairly good shape to hold them off if you have to.”

“Your two cents’ worth?” Sam asked quizzically. Tannim grinned and shrugged—and Sam remembered the odd pro­tections around the car. This Tannim might not be one of the Fair Folk, but there was no doubt he held his own in their company.

More of Sam’s granny’s lore was coming back to him. There was, surprisingly, a lot of it. And the things he remembered about the Unseleighe Court were unpleasant indeed, especially when it occurred to him that she had undoubtedly toned things down for his young ears. Now he wondered how much she hadn’t told him, and how important that information was.

And where she had gotten it from. The “missing” brother, perhaps? He made a mental note to ask Keighvin about that some time.

Still—here was a chance to see things very few other humans had seen. A chance to be useful again. He’d ­retired only because he’d had no choice. He had enjoyed the first few weeks of his vacation, but truth to tell, he was getting bored. There were only so many things he could do to improve the house. He hated fishing. He could only watch so much television before feeling the urge to throw something at the tube.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll do it Full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes. You’ve got your man.”

The little that remained of the evening passed in a blur. Tannim took him home again—and this time did not treat him to a mini-race on the driveway. Neither of them said much, except to set a dinner meeting for that evening—since it was already “tomorrow,” being well past midnight.

Tannim waited until he was safely sealed inside his little fortress before driving off; he wasn’t certain if that was a wise precaution, or real paranoia. Surely the Unseleighe Court denizens wouldn’t already know he’d agreed to help Fairgrove?

Then again, this was magic he was dealing with; as unknown in its potentials as a new technology. Maybe they could know.

Thoreau was lying beside the door, patiently but obviously waiting for his promised treat. Sam headed for the kitchen and dished out a tiny portion of canned food. Thoreau didn’t need extra pounds any more than a ­human did, and these late-night snacks were the only time he got canned food. The rest of the time, he had to make do with dry.

Thoreau was one of the more interesting dogs Sam had ever owned. Instead of greedily gobbling down his treat, he ate it slowly, licking it like a child trying to make an ice-cream cone last. Sam left him to it and went to his library in the office, but didn’t immediately pull down some of the reference materials he’d mentally selected.

Instead, he sat with hands idly clasped on the desk for a long moment, wondering if, when he did go to bed, he’d wake up in the morning to find that all this had been a dream.

Something crackled in his jacket pocket as he took it off, and he found the envelope with the check in it still in his breast pocket.

“All right,” he said to Thoreau, as the dog padded into the study, licking his chops with satisfaction. “Maybe it is a dream. Maybe there are fairy checks as well as fairy gold. But it’s here now.” He planted the envelope under his favorite paperweight, a bronze replica of the Space Shuttle Challenger. “If it’s gone in the morning, I’ll know it was a dream. But for now, all we can do is try. Eh, Thoreau?”

Thoreau wagged his stub of a tail in agreement, and put his head down on his paws as Sam got up and ­began pulling books and bound magazines down off the shelf. He’d seen this before. He knew it was going to be a long night.

The Mustang purred happily as Tannim drove into Sam’s driveway. There were times, especially lately, when Tannim wondered if maybe he hadn’t instilled a little too much magic into the car. Or maybe he’d planted something else besides pure Power. Lately it had seemed as if the Mach 1 was almost—sentient. It certainly seemed to approve of Sam Kelly; there was a warmth to the engine’s purr that hadn’t been there before he turned into the drive, and the car had embraced Sam as if he belonged inside it.

Well, for that matter, Tannim approved of Sam Kelly. He was a smart, tough old bird, and too good to waste on retirement. Now, as long as he and Keighvin hadn’t gotten the old man into more danger than any of them could handle. . . . His conscience bothered him a bit over that. Sam had brains and savvy, but what if he needed that and a younger man’s reflexes as well?

He was taking Sam to dinner, after a couple of drinks at Kevin Barry’s Pub in Savannah, on River Street. There were several Irish pubs in the area, but Kevin Barry’s was the one Tannim preferred. He had the feeling that Sam would feel more at home, easier, in an atmosphere that reminded him of Ireland and all it meant.

He’d chosen a dinner meeting rather than a return to Fairgrove for a very good reason; he wanted Sam’s first dose of Keighvin Silverhair to wear off before they talked again. Keighvin’s formidable personality had been known to overwhelm far stronger personalities than Sam’s, even without a glamorie at work.

Not that Keighvin would have used a glamorie on Sam Kelly. They wanted a willing ally, with all his faculties in working order, not a bemused dreamer.

Tannim wasn’t entirely certain how old Keighvin was; certainly at least a thousand. That much living produced personalities that could easily bowl the unsuspecting over. If Sam was having second thoughts, Tannim wanted to know about it without Keighvin around to influence him.

The pub itself, however, was a good place to talk to Sam. The atmosphere, so strongly Celtic, should put Sam in the state of mind to remember and Believe, even though he was going to be completely in the “real world.”

And there was no more “real world” a clientele than the bunch that frequented Kevin Barry’s. Students from SCAD, business people, locals, artists, holdover hippies, folkies—you name it, and you would probably see it in Kevin Barry’s. Except maybe yuppies; the place wasn’t trendy enough for them.

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