CRAG

Chapter 5.
Special Dispensation

 

The Ministere de Justice was a monolith of glass and steel. It stood atop a crowded ridge overlooking the red valley of the Rusted Zone. Most of the buildings along the avenue were recycled institutions from the city’s various architectural eras, from Organic to Late Gothic to Retro-Modernism, so the result was a melange of old and new construction.

The crude angles and iron superstructures of the past mingled with neospires of steel and glass; nanotech smartdomes melded together by macrofiber networks; new and glistening skins grown over decrepit understructures thousands of years old. Architectural recycling at its finest, a baroque blend of styles influenced by a thousand different worlds. This was the Reclaimed Zone, where modernity overshadowed mouldering antiquity, and the Ministere de Justice was the perfect icon of that modernity. It sparkled white and blinding in the first light of morning.

Sunbeams pierced the windows of the lorrie. Crag awoke in the back seat at the prodding of a gendarme’s rifle butt. He kicked at the soldier’s head but didn’t really try to connect. The gendarmes moved away from the vehicle and allowed him to slide out. Crag wavered for a moment, the heat of good nitrate oils still burning in his belly gears. He turned back to grab his top hat. The Tribune was a stickler for appearances.

Crag adjusted his bronze face, pressed the hat down upon his skull, and followed the garden path toward the massive outer stairs. Statues lining the courtyard were made of bronze, faded and tarnished by age. The plants thriving here were synthetic recreations of real foliage, creations of the Ministere de Science whose personnel maintained the building. The banner of the Potentates hung crimson and black at the top of the steps, between pillars of silver and milky quartz.

The guards didn’t bother to nod or salute Crag as he passed. He was beneath their notice, just another tool of the Tribune like themselves. Crag tried not to look at the trio of jade gargoyles above the entrance. The sculptures always gave him bad vibes, yet he could never avoid staring at their reptilian faces. They stared back at him with green stone eyes, their mouths grinning with crooked tusks. Crag entered the central corridor through an open pair of immense doors. The walls were sterile, built of white alloy and stainless steel. The chairs were ornate, carved of ancient wood, lined with deep velvet. Porcelain-faced Beatifics stood along the walls in their finest coats and hats, waiting for access to the Tribune’s court. Some wore shackles at wrists and ankles with silent gendarmes looming at their shoulders.

Crag approached a second pair of doors somewhat smaller than the first. These were carved of ancient wood with intricate swirls and arcane patterns. A gendarme opened the right door as Crag approached. He was expected after all.

Inside the golden bench of the Tribune stood on a raised platform above the twin stands of prosecution and defense. Eight plastic couches sat below in two orderly rows for the comfort of observers. In all his years serving the Ministere de Justice, Crag had never seen anyone sitting on those couches. The Tribune heard cases and made judgments without an audience. Crag wondered why the couches were even there if nobody was ever going to use them. He slumped down on the rearmost couch. His coils sighed and his leg gears unlocked.

On the left wall stood a door marked ABSOLUTION. An identical door on the opposite wall read PUNISHMENT. Prisoners brought into the court were judged, sentenced, and dragged through one door or the other. In all his years at the Ministere de Justice, Crag had never seen anyone get the door of absolution. He wondered if anyone ever had walked through it, and if it led anywhere at all.

The Tribune’s gavel fell with a boom. Two gendarmes escorted a condemned Beatific from the bench to the door of punishment. As the door opened before him the man lost all sense of dignity and began screaming for mercy. They always did that. The gendarmes wrestled him through the portal, and the door slammed shut. The shrieks of the condemned man echoed for awhile from the other side, gradually fading into silence.

The Tribune finished scribbling something on a scroll with his peacock quill pen. The Ministere de Justice had a real taste for old-fashioned customs. That is to say Tribune Anteus had a thing for old-fashioned things, because he was heart and soul of the Ministere de Justice. This was the House of Anteus. Everyone here answered to the Tribune, and the Tribune answered only to the Potentates.

A miniature version of the Potentate’s banner hung above the Tribune’s high seat. The opaque veil that hid the Tribune’s face matched his spotless white robe. A long powdered wig hid the rest of his head. The walls of the court were etched with mosaics of ancient Beatifics wearing those types of wigs. Despite its external modernity the place was a bastion of tradition, a crucible of frozen history, and the only source of order in the grand chaos that was the Urbille. Crag was a part of that order. He was good at his job, even if he’d lost the heart for it.

The Tribune waved his long fingers, and the precious stones of his rings sparkled.

“Inspector Crag, you may approach.” A voice familiar as the Urbille itself. The Tribune’s regular speeches, delivered via high-frequency transistor, were the voice of the Potentates. It was a voice Crag had known all his life. Yet did anyone really know the Tribune? Crag reported to him directly on a case-by-case basis. He preferred to avoid it whenever possible. The urge to strangle the man until his pulpy brain oozed from his optical sockets had left Crag years ago. That wouldn’t have been any good for Caroline.

Crag stood before the high bench in the place where accused criminals were also made to stand. The Tribune had all his meeting like this. A constant reminder that he sat above everyone else, even his fellow agents of order. Anteus drummed his sharp nails against the golden bench as he spoke.

“Splendid work tonight,” said the Tribune. “We can always count on you, Crag. Was the apprehension difficult?”

“No apprehension,” Crag said. “The killer was sick. He had to be put down on the spot.”

The veiled faced stared at him.

“It was a matter of life and death,” Crag said.

“Very well,” said the Tribune. “You’ll find no dispute from me this time. We have more important things to discuss.”

“What’s more important than keeping the Urbille’s children safe?”

“Whatever serves the interests of the Potentates, Inspector.”

“Yes, sir.”
“In this case the matter does happen to involve the youngest members of our population. Perhaps it is related in some way to the case you just solved, but that is not for me to say.”

Crag waited.

“Are you familiar with the notorious highwayman known as the Surgeon?”

“I’ve read the reports,” Crag said. “Renegade Beatific, roams the Nexus robbing and murdering travellers; horseman, swordsman, handy with a pistol; supernaturally gifted; responsible for at least a dozen murders a year for the past decade.”

Crag had an optical for detail and an excellent memory. Caroline always said it was what made him good at his job. A half-dozen special agents had tried to track, entrap, or gun down the highwayman in the past ten years. Nobody ever found him. And nobody who went looking for him ever came back alive.

The Tribune waved a sheaf of papers. “Yes, yes, but have you seen the Red File?”

Crag reached up and took the folder. He opened it and scanned the document inside. It was marked CONFIDENTIAL: TRIBUNE ONLY in red ink. A list of dates and names; times and places; most of them along the Greater Thoroughfare, the others in and around the Urbille itself. Abductions. Some singly, some in groups.

Crag read the notations and recognized his own name on several cases. He slapped the folder down onto a wooden podium. “Missing persons cases from the last 12 years. Some of them were my cases. All of them unsolved…”

“Two hundred and sixty four unsolved cases,” said the Tribune, “and we suspect many more unreported losses. Do you see what all of these cases have in common?”

Crag had already noticed it. “They’re all minors. Young Organics. Pre-Conversion citizens of the Urbille.” He checked a row of data. “Seventy percent were stolen from Beatific families, the rest from Clatterpox.”

“And what does that suggest to you?”

“That somebody’s stealing children from the Urbille and he doesn’t play favorites.”

“That somebody is the Surgeon, Inspector,” said the Tribune. “And these are only the cases of youths taken from the Urbille itself. It doesn’t take into account hundreds more who were stolen right off the Greater Thoroughfare. Taken from the families of travelling merchants and private expeditions. Even an acting troupe lost four Young Organics who were travelling with them as apprentices.”

“So the Surgeon is stealing kids,” Crag said. “Children of all ages. He’s not murdering his victims for their wealth. He’s robbing them of their children.”

“He takes whatever wealth he can as well,” said the Tribune, “but we now know that his primary target is and always has been our children. He’s never taken anyone who has undergone Conversion.”

“No one under the age of sixteen,” Crag said. “Why? What is he doing with them all?”

“Now you’re asking the right questions, Inspector. I knew you were the man for the job.”

“What job, Excellency?”

“This child-stealer is no better than the child-killer you just eliminated,” said the Tribune. “To understand his motives, we must look at the man behind the reputation. You remembered that the Surgeon is a Beatific. What else do you know about him?”

“Not much. Rumors and whispers. Some say he’s a devil from Hell, others say he works for the Potentates. I’ve even heard it said that he’s not human at all.”

“No, Crag. The Surgeon used to be Doctor Aimon Wail, a gifted physician specialized in Conversion. Ranked extremely high among the Masters of Conversion Arts and Sciences. He earned six doctorial degrees in biomechanics and won three Adept Scrolls. He served the Potentates in the Ministere de Science for over two hundred years, during that time Converting thousands of Organic youths into magnificent Beatifics. A job so important one might see it as a sacred calling.”

“What happened?” Crag asked. “Something must have sent him over the edge.”

“Thirteen years ago Dr. Wail, by all accounts, went mad and murdered Supervisor Guillaume of the Ministere de Science. Evading capture by unknown means, Wail then disappeared and his Good Hills estate was burned to the ground. His wife Kalmea died in that fire, as did his son Alain who was approaching Conversion age.

Crag listened. At one time he would have asked what could possibly make a man go rabid and murder his own family. But he’d been on the job far too long for rookie questions. They had no satisfying answers, and they would only drive you insane if you didn’t let go of them. Some things weren’t meant to be understood.

“Shortly after Wail’s disappearance,” said the Tribune, “he began abducting Organic youths. At first we believed his actions to be an external force invading the Nexus, but we learned more every time he struck. Certain incantations used in the commission of his crimes revealed arcane secrets known only to Surgeons. A few years ago we confirmed Wail’s identity, but we still don’t know why he’s stealing Organics or where he’s taking them. We believe it’s somewhere very far away, possibly an off-Nexus world.”

An off-Nexus world? Was there anything outside the Nexus?

“You want me to find him,” Crag said. “Why now? Why didn’t I get this assignment years ago?”

“These things take time,” said the Tribune. “Paperwork, bureaucracy, crossworld permits and such. Suffice to say this is your time, Crag. We can’t wait any longer.”

“Why not?”

The Tribune shifted nervously in his big chair. Crag heard a slight grinding of gears beneath the pristine robes.

“You’ve never raised a child have you, Inspector?”

Crag’s heart pinged, its cogs slipping into a higher speed. “No, Excellency. We intended to but there were…complications.”

The main complication being that you sent my wife to prison.

“When your wife completes her sentence, do you intend to raise a child then?”

Crag stifled his anger. He hadn’t expected personal questions. They poked at old grudges, stirred up dangerous thoughts.

“I imagine so.”

“Good,” said the Tribune. “They say the greatest joy a man and woman can experience together is the raising of a healthy child. Not even the lowest Clatterpox would deny it. Now imagine that your sacred day comes. An Angel of the Potentates hovers above your domicile, then descends on its silver wings to gift you with the tiny bundle of joy that will be your son. Or daughter.”

Crag remembered watching the Waiting List for birthing dates. He and Caroline had been seven-hundred-and-ninth on the list. That was twenty-two years ago. If she hadn’t been taken away, it would have only been another year or two until the Angel brought them a baby to call their own. Crag had secretly hoped for a son, but he told Caroline he wanted a daughter too. Sometimes the Potentates gave a double blessing, and the Angels arrived with twins.

She would still want a child when she got out. It was part of who she was, part of why she was incarcerated in the first place. Helping a child shouldn’t ever be a crime, but she had ignored the law to do it. Maybe if they’d been given a legal baby before she stepped out of line, she wouldn’t have gotten into trouble that way. The whole subject made Crag uncomfortable.

“Imagine that your birthing day is set but your Angel never comes. Imagine getting a notice from the Ministere de Records that your child was lost–or stolen–before it could be delivered to you. You’ll have to go to the back of the line and wait your turn again. This scenario is happening more and more often, Crag. The Surgeon has become so skilled at robbing us of our property, he’s learned to intercept the Angels before they reach the Urbille. He’s also learned how to disable or destroy them, and to take the Organic babies for his own purposes. Now and again he still abducts older children, but more often these days he targets the Angels and takes the infants right out of their arms.”

Crag sat down on the front couch. There was a bigger picture here, something he was not yet seeing. The Angels travelled the Nexus rescuing newborns in the Outer Affinities, the Organic refuse of broken worlds delivered to a better life in the Urbille. Why would Wail want to interfere with the process? The children of the Urbille remained fully Organic until the time of their Conversion Day, when sixteen-year-olds gave up their flesh for the scientific ritual that made them either Beatific or Clatterpox.

A process that used to be Dr. Wail’s specialty.

Until the day he lost his mind…

“Now we come to the heart of the matter,” said the Tribune. “It is time to find Wail and put an end to his insurgence. Looking at the record of your accomplishments, your many commendations, and seeing the way you’ve handled this recent case, I’ve chosen you for this assignment.”

“I’m an Urbille operator,” Crag said. “I’ve never been out of the city. Never even been on the Thoroughfare.”

“There is a first time for everything, Inspector.”

“Policing the Nexus isn’t my job.” Arguing with the Tribune was a dangerous thing to do, but Crag’s anger was flowing again. A dull ache in his chest-cogs.

You shouldn’t have asked me about Caroline. Or babies.

“You’re a manhunter,” said the Tribune. “I’m giving you Special Dispensation with crossworld authorities to get this job done. Your jurisdiction is now expanded to the whole of the Nexus. If you need fresh ordinance, see the proper department. I’ll expect regular status reports. You may go.”

“I can’t do it,” Crag said. He didn’t move from the couch. They might throw him into the labyrinth like they had done to Caroline. But he figured they wouldn’t. Not now. The Tribune needed this case to close. For once Crag felt like he had an advantage over the powers he served. It felt good in a dangerous way.

“I see,” said the Tribune. His veiled head leaned forward. “You require an incentive. Very well, I’ll give you one. If you bring the Surgeon to justice, I’ll sign an executive order releasing your wife immediately. I believe she has served two decades and has three to go? I’ll wipe her slate clean, Crag. I have the Potentates’ direct authority on this matter.”

Crag said nothing. Tribune Anteus always had the Potentates’ direct authority.

“Do you understand? Bring me the Surgeon’s head, and I’ll give you back your wife. Or you can refuse the assignment and wait another thirty years to be with the woman you love.”

The coils tightened inside Crag’s stomach. His heartbeat was a steady clockwork rhythm that he rarely noticed. But heard it now, ticking, hurling echoes across the Tribune’s chamber. The Tribune did not seem to hear it at all.

Caroline.

He might be able to find the Surgeon. Everybody left clues. There was a lot to work with here. Part of him had always wanted to parse the Affinities. Finding the Surgeon would be the easy part. Bringing him down was something else entirely.

It’s Caroline.

“Consider it done,” Crag said.

Tribune Anteus clapped his hands, and his rings flashed as he signed Crag’s orders.

 

NEXT WEEK: “The StoneFathers”

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—  A FEW ODD SOULS Copyright 2019 John R. Fultz —