SKIPTRAIN

Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9
Chapter 10

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Chapter 11.
Twelve Nights in Neopolis

The Rude Mechanicals assembled after dawn in the plaza behind the Theatre d’ Ames Rire. They wore longcoats and motley cloaks, some with feathered hats, most of them wearing painted porcelain faces. As the troupe’s leader, Skiptrain wore the traditional gold-and-ivory face, probably a gift from some rich Beatific patron. The twelfth member of the troupe soon joined them, followed by a six-wheeled steam carriage that rumbled at his heels belching smoke from a double row of exhaust pipes.

The carriage resembled a flatbed lorrie without a cabin. A small dome of shatterproof glass rose from its center, the brain floating inside it connected to the engine by an array of wires and microfilaments. Such brain-driven vehicles were once common in the Urbille, but they had fallen out of fashion centuries ago. By its very nature and its accumulated patterns of rust, Crag could tell it was older than half the troupe’s members. The vehicle stood waist-high to a man, its flat surface piled high with barrels of oil and coal, as well as crates full of costumes, backdrops, and props. Since they no longer allowed Organics to apprentice, the Rude Mechanicals didn’t need to pack food or water.

Crag watched from an alley across the street. For two days he had shadowed the troupe, watching them prepare for the journey to Neopolis. Some of the actors gave private farewells to the wealthy Beatifics that sustained their company, while others shopped for new clothes to replace last season’s wardrobe. The last few worked on repairing and replacing the stage gear for their next performance. Skiptrain met with quite a few Beatifics during this time, usually in the company of Noemi, who was apparently his second-in-command. Or perhaps his lover. She never left his side, so the latter was most probable.

The two days had also given him time to research every member of the troupe. Skiptrain was a life-long veteran of the theater, who had apprenticed with Sala North when he was a young Organic nearly a hundred years ago. Since Sala’s death at the hands of the Surgeon, he’d taken on the role of troupe leader, apparently uncontested. Noemi, his co-star, and confidante, was new to the troupe, having joined them a year after Sala’s death. Crag found no information on Noemi before that time, which probably meant that wasn’t her real name. Could be that she was on the run from the Beatific house that raised her. Not all the wealthy houses approved of an actor’s life.

Albertus was another long-timer. He had served the Potentates in three different wars over the past three-hundred-and-fifty years. But for most of the past century he’d been an actor instead of a soldier. Albertus carried a longrifle on his back as the troupe prepared to depart, confirming Crag’s theory that he served as the troupe’s protector.

Specious and Hangdog were the only other long-timers. They had been with Sala North since the beginning. One-hundred-sixty-five years ago, Sala had formed the Rude Mechanicals with these two originals. Gromsley and Tulwar joined the troupe fifty-six years ago. Persephone, Slate, and Gloriadne had also been members of the troupe when the highwayman killed its leader a decade past. The two newest members, besides the high-ranking Noemi, were Dinkum and Antebella; both had joined less than six years ago. Crag wondered who Noemi might actually be, and he kept a list of possible names in his notebook. They were only guesses, and not particularly good ones. He needed to know more about Skiptrain, Noemi, and what really happened on the Lesser Thoroughfare ten years ago. There was only one way to get that information.

Crag shouldered his traveling pack and walked across the street to join the troupe. Actors pointed in his direction, and Skiptrain turned to greet him with a slight bow.

“Inspector,” Skiptrain’s tone was far too pleasant to be genuine. But then again, he was an actor, so nothing he said was completely believable. “How nice of you to come and bid us farewell.” Fans had brought the troupe bouquets of flowers and jars of expensive lubricant, all of which were piled onto the self-driving steam carriage. A few onlookers hung about the plaza, waiting to see the troupe off.

Crag wore his official bronze mask today. “Not necessary, Mr. Skiptrain,” he said. “In their infinite wisdom the Potentates have decided that the Rude Mechanicals are entitled to state protection. I’ve been given the honor of escorting you to Neopolis and back.”

Skiptrain’s head turned sideways. He looked into Noemi’s amber opticals for a moment. “My good man,” Skiptrain said, “I assure you no such protection is necessary. As you can see, we are armed…”

Skiptrain opened his coat to reveal a well-polished antique sidearm. He waved an arm at Albertus, who hefted his long rifle. Noemi wore a slim blade and a long-handled pistol at her side. A few other actors spread their cloaks to reveal sidearms or blades. Not all of them traveled with weapons, but enough of them did to make a difference.

“We have roamed the Thoroughfares for so long that our reputation precedes us,” said Skiptrain. “A certain measure of respect is accorded the Rude Mechanicals on the road, even among those who would otherwise harm travelers. There is very little danger to be found in this journey, as we intend to stay on the Greater Thoroughfare and avoid the Outer Affinities altogether. So as you can see we have no need of a bodyguard, official or otherwise. We must, with gratitude and politeness, decline your kind offer.”

“It’s not an offer,” Crag said. “It’s a Tribunal Decree. Looks like you’re stuck with me.”

Skiptrain examined at the faces of his troupe. Crag had basically invited himself to the party. Organics might have displayed nervousness, confusion, or even anger. Yet the porcelain faces held their carefully crafted expressions of benevolent beauty. It was almost impossible to tell what a Beatific was thinking, unless you engaged in mind-to-mind contact. Such an intimate bonding was only for lovers and family members. Crag was good at guessing what his people thought. It was part of his job. He could tell the troupe wanted nothing to do with him, and he’d expected nothing less.

Skiptrain laughed. “Very well, then!” he announced. “Mechanicals, welcome our official state escort, Inspector Crag.” The actors bowed and doffed their hats. A casual observer might have thought the lawman was actually welcome in their company.

The troupe leader raised his arms to the grey sky and recited a poem that bordered on pure gibberish to Crag’s ears. When Skiptrain finished this benediction, the actors shouldered their packs or stowed the last of their gear on the steam carriage. Skiptrain walked with Noemi at his side, and the troupe followed with the carriage rumbling in the center of their ranks.

They passed from Commercial Zone to Rusted Zone, waving at their fans. They patted the heads of dirty-faced Clatterpox children who ran to embrace them. Beatifics and Clatterpox alike slowed their coaches or stepped to the side of the road to let the Rude Mechanicals pass. Some begged them to stay, but Skiptrain promised the troupe would return soon.

Crag had never realized how universally beloved the troupe was in the Urbille. Even crowds of snapping goblins parted and dropped to their knees as the Mechanicals moved toward the Outer Gate. The Avenue of Egress led directly to the first Outer Gate, which opened onto the pale expanse of the Greater Thoroughfare. The road between the worlds ran straight from the ragged edge of the city through a range of ashy hills. Glancing backward while passing through the gate, Crag took a last look at the jumble of conflicting architectures and rusted metal that comprised the Urbille skyline. Clouds of red dust hung above the streets, obscuring the Good Hills and the Palace of the Potentates from view.

As the troupe walked toward the first of many portes, Crag admired the dead trees standing like frozen giants among the ash. The road became an arching bridge that crossed a ravine full of mist and darkness. Staring downward from the bridge, Crag realized that he had never been out of the city before today. He was a creature of the Urbille and he belonged there. Caroline waited for him there, lying in some dark cell beneath the Potentates’ palace. She was his north star, his compass point. Wherever he wandered on this ancient road, no matter how many worlds he had to cross, he would return to this place and hold his wife’s hand again.

Beyond the ravine the road wound between piles of crumbled black stone and jagged shards of silica. A few Clatterpox work gangs chipped away at these resources, gathering piles of loose stones in two-wheeled carts. They did not spare a glance for the passing troupe. Up ahead the twin pylons of the porte stood grey and gleaming in the sunlight. A company of sixteen gendarmes stood there checking the credentials of departing travelers.

Crag pulled his topper low and turned up his collar, hoping the gendarmes would not recognize him and ask embarrassing questions. Skiptrain spoke a few words with the captain of the guard, and the gendarmes spread to either side of the road. The Rude Mechanicals and their brain-driven steam carriage rolled into the next world.

The comfortable weather of the Urbille was replaced by a black sky full of wind and rain. The troupe walked on through the damp, and symphonies of thunder rang overhead. The wilderness on either side of the road was deep, full of ancient trees bearing leaves in a dozen colors. The landscape was uneven, running up and down through the sodden forest, and the road hugged the contours of the land. Or was it the land that clung to the contours of the road? Crag kept his eyes on the troupe members, watching Skiptrain and Noemi whenever he could, listening for any off-hand comments that might lead to something substantial.

Don’t press it, he reminded himself. Walk with them. Become one of them. Establish trust. They’ll tell you everything once they trust you.

Often the troupe shared the road with merchant caravans heading back toward the Urbille. These were massive affairs of three to twelve coaches, pulled by teams of mechanical horses and driven by Clatterpox servants. Crowds of Beatifics waved from the carriage windows, or completely ignored the troupe. Crag saw no Organic faces in those windows. Most houses had learned not to take their pre-Conversion children along these days. To do so made you an instant target for the Surgeon. Still, there might be an Organic or two hidden inside the carriages. Beatific merchants did not like being told what to do, so many of them ignored the travel warnings.

The troupe passed through another porte, this one guarded by a pack of fire wolves that dispersed when Albertus shot one of them with his rifle. The next world was an endless expanse of mountains tall and sharp as needles. The ground was littered with dunes of shattered stone, as if the sky itself had been made of obsidian and one day cracked like a mirror.

They passed through a dozen more realities, some littered with the ruins of long-dead civilizations, some only rugged wilderness, others blasted wastelands where the wind howled day and night. There was no need for rest stops, but the troupe did pause every day at sunrise to wind their heart-keys. The ritual created a sense of oneness, bringing Crag a little bit closer to acceptance.

Skiptrain checked the fluid levels of the carriage and dropped a new chunk of coal into its furnace box. Noemi was the first of the Mechanicals to make conversation with Crag.

“First time on the Thoroughfare?” she asked. The tiny red lips of her porcelain face offered him a fixed smile.

“Am I that obvious?” Crag said.

“You often stare at wonders that have long ago ceased to amaze us,” Noemi said. “We have walked the road between the worlds so many times, it has become less than spectacular to us. I wish I could see it with your opticals. See everything for the first time.”

Crag chuckled. “I’ve seen about everything there is to see in the Urbille,” he said, omitting the fact that he’d never been inside the Palace of the Potentates. “Never thought there was much to see out here. Just a bunch of dead or dying worlds.”

Noemi’s opticals focused on his. “And now? Has your mind changed so quickly?”

Crag shrugged. “There is beauty out here…raw, unrefined, untamed. Sometimes it’s only the remains of beauty that died long ago, and yet even the dead worlds have a loveliness all their own.”

“You’re quite perceptive,” Noemi said. “I am glad that our little excursion is broadening your horizons.”

“In my experience,” Crag said, “there is always something more to learn.”

“Indeed,” Noemi said. She took her place beside Skiptrain as they marched on.

A few worlds later a blinding snowstorm stopped the troupe in its tracks. They made camp in the shadow of a great ice-clad boulder. The road ran on between the snowdrifts of the frozen world, but the Mechanicals would not be able to make any progress against the storm winds. So they waited for the storm to die down, sitting in a crude circle about the puttering steam carriage. Tiny bubbles arose from the naked brain inside its glass dome. It vented extra steam to melt the snow in its vicinity, and the troupe found stones and broken logs to sit on. The cold sky glittered with stars between rushing black clouds. Crag took the opportunity to sit beside Skiptrain and Noemi. The group passed around a bottle of spiced lubricant.

Crag took a swig and passed it to the next person. “Do you ever wonder what happened to your stolen apprentices?” He asked loud enough so that everyone in the group could hear him. Skiptrain seemed to bristle with irritation, as if the cold wind made him tremble. Noemi exchanged a quick glance with him, then looked away.

“We don’t speak of them,” said Skiptrain.

“Bad luck,” said Albertus, cleaning the barrel of his rifle.

“I understand,” Crag said. “This is no life for fragile Organics.”

“Why ask so many questions about our loss?” Skiptrain said. “Of all the topics in all the Affinities, you seem obsessed with the highwayman. Isn’t that the real reason for this escort? You hope to find some clue from us that will lead you to the Surgeon. Or perhaps you think we are in league with the bandit himself, smuggling infants in our crates of stage gear?”

A few of the troupe members chuckled.

“Go head,” said Skiptrain, “check every crate and barrel on the carriage. You’ll find nothing of any interest to the Surgeon or his cause, and certainly no purloined infants.”

Crag’s head tilted. “You believe the highwayman serves a cause?” he said. “What might that be?”

Skiptrain shrugged. “How should I know? Perhaps he thinks he’s doing the Organics a favor.” Noemi poked him with her elbow.

“How so?” Crag asked.

“By saving them from the Urbille,” said Skiptrain.

“So you don’t think he’s killing them?”

“Of course not,” said Skiptrain. “He could easily have killed them on the road, but he took them away instead. Why go to all the bother of relocating them if death was all he had to offer?”

“Yet he killed Sala North,” Crag said.

“Sala was defending the apprentices,” said Noemi. “She dared to meet the Surgeon’s challenge. It was a foolish thing to do.”

“Foolish, perhaps, but incredibly brave,” said Skiptrain.

Crag made a mental note: Noemi wasn’t a member of the troupe ten years ago. She shouldn’t have anything but second-hand knowledge of the encounter. Once again he wondered who she really was.

Albertus chimed in, laying the rifle across his knees. “The Surgeon is a mighty swordsman,” he said. “And a necromancer. He set a pack of swamp specters on us, and they tore me apart. He has command over the dead, at least in certain Affinities. Yet it was his quick blade that took Sala’s head.”

“Among our strongest patrons we count several practicing Surgeons,” Skiptrain said. “One of them successfully reconstructed Albertus.”

“What about Sala?” Crag asked.

Skiptrain said nothing. He stared at the frozen ground.

“It was too late for her,” Noemi said.

A moment of silence fell upon them. Miniature snowdrifts piled at their feet and ankles, and the wind shrieked through icy mounds.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of killers in my time,” said Crag. “I’ve studied them, figured out their twisted logic, tracked them down, and killed them. Not all killers are mad. Some of them kill for good reasons, or what they consider to be good reasons. There are those who kill for causes. They are the most dangerous of all.”

“The Surgeon isn’t a killer,” Skiptrain said. “That’s not what he’s about. Yes, he killed Sala, but that was done in open challenge. He warned us to give him the Organics and avoid violence. We didn’t listen. Sala paid the price. But he didn’t come to kill us.”

“No,” said Crag, “he came to steal your children.”

“He spoke to them,” Skiptrain said. “And they followed him of their own free will. He said that Conversion would mean death for them, and that he had come to save them from it.”

Crag made another mental note. “He’s against Conversion? Saving Organics from becoming Beatifics. Or Clatterpox. So that’s the cause you mentioned. But why? And what is he doing with all of these Organics after abducting them for twelve years now? Where are they? Where is he hiding?”

“Philosophers say there are over fifteen hundred Affinities aligned to the Nexus,” said Skiptrain. “He could be taking refuge in any of them.”

“Not any of them,” said Crag. “If he’s got hundreds of Organics with him, he’d need a world hospitable to Organic needs.”

Skiptrain shook his head. “I wish we could tell you more,” he said. “But that is all we know.”

“Why now?” Noemi asked. “After all this time, why has the Tribune take such an interest in the Surgeon?”

Crag looked at her. “Because the Surgeon has started preying on Angels, stealing infants before they can be delivered to Urbille families.”

“I told you his powers are great,” said Albertus. “No one has ever succeeded in bringing down a Harvester. Not until he came along.”

“Why is he so different?” Crag said. “Where does his power come from?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Noemi said. “He was once a Surgeon of the Urbille, trained in the arcane wisdom of the Potentates, given the secrets of Life and Death. Who better to oppose the Lords of Urbille than a former servant? One who knows all their secrets.”

Crag nodded. His thoughts exactly. Another sign that Noemi was far more than she appeared to be.

“The big question is why,” he said. “Why bother? Why oppose the Masters of the Nexus, and why do it in such a way?”

“You tell us,” said Skiptrain. “You must have your own theories.”

Crag took another drink of the warm lubricant. The gears in his throat turned smoothly, and the liquid ran into his belly coils. He could not feel the cold of the snow through his elastic skin, but the illusion of warmth created by the lubricant was quite pleasant.

“I think the Surgeon is a madman,” he said, only half believing it. “Someone whose fractured understanding of reality leads him to see Conversion as something evil to be avoided at all costs. The loss of his own son during the process drove him to this point. Everything he does is a function of an extreme guilt eating away at his soul.”

“An interesting theory,” said Noemi.

“A guilt-driven monster,” said Hangdog.

“No,” said Skiptrain. “Whatever he is, he’s no monster. In his mind he is saving these young Organics from a perceived evil. If he were a monster, he wouldn’t do anything so noble.”

A silence fell. A few of the troupe looked at Skiptrain. Knowing that he said something he shouldn’t have, the troupe leader fell silent.

“You find his cause noble?” said Crag.

Skiptrain shook his head. Noemi took him by the elbow.

“Apologies,” said Skiptrain. “I chose the wrong word. I only meant that a monster wouldn’t work for the best interests of his victims.”

Crag rubbed his bronze chin. “Feel free to speak your mind around me,” he said. “I’m not here to get dirt on you for the Potentates. I’m here to learn what I can while I protect your company. I have no problem with you people. But tell me: What makes you so sure the Surgeon is working for the best interests of his abductees?”

Skiptrain folded his arms. Noemi leaned against him. The wind moaned and howled above the road. A number of silver moons gleamed in the darkness.

Skiptrain shook his head, no longer meeting Crag’s gaze.

“He’s not a madman,” Skiptrain said. “Those Organics are alive somewhere.”

“How can you know that?” Crag asked.

“Call it intuition,” Skiptrain said. “Sometimes people break the law for good reasons.”

Crag let the matter drop for awhile. Before this trip was over, he would know what those “good reasons” were. The conversation had solidified his belief that Skiptrain knew more than he let on, and that Noemi was not at all who she claimed to be.

“Do you miss her?” Crag asked.

“Who?” Skiptrain said.

“Sala North. She was your mentor, the founder of your troupe. Losing her must have been difficult.”

Twelve faces stared at Crag with opticals reflecting the night sky.

“We all loved Sala,” Skiptrain said. “But we said our goodbyes to her ten years ago. I decided to keep the troupe alive to preserve her memory. Every performance we do is a salute to her legacy.”

Noemi looked away, staring into the frozen nightscape.

“Yet you tell me the man who killed her is neither monster nor madman,” Crag said. “You have a forgiving disposition, Mr. Skiptrain.”

Skiptrain laughed. He responded with a line from one of the Great Plays: ” ‘For you, most wicked sir, whom to call brother would even infect my mouth, I do forgive thy rankest fault–all of them…’ Even the exiled Prospero learned to forgive his enemies.”

Crag stood up. ” ‘Give me your blessing; truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; in the end truth will out.’ 

The players were speechless. Crag had done his homework.

Gain their trust. Eventually they will tell you everything.

The troupe laughed at his clumsy delivery of the line. Albertus nodded to Skiptrain, a tacit seal of approval. Noemi said nothing. Skiptrain clapped Crag on the back. The storm had dwindled to a light dusting of snow. The winds calmed as dawn crept into the sky.

“Well quoted, Inspector,” said Skiptrain. He pulled a purple cloak tight about his shoulders. Curling lines of golden trim flared on his ivory face. “I see you are a well-read man. We are pleased to enjoy your fine company on this trip.”

With those words the journey across the worlds continued.

####

Neopolis was a collection of crystal towers, shining bright as glass beneath a pair of orange suns. Its domes and colonnades and plazas were built of that same crystal, which had the look of raw diamond and the density of granite. A second city of more mundane substance spread about the first, simple constructions of granite, wood, and recycled metal.

Flaring comets were common in the skies here. Every twenty-two years the city was partially destroyed by a recurring meteor shower. The Beatifics who ruled Neopolis in the name of the Potentates rebuilt the city after every such instance. A range of distant mountains held massive reservoirs of the unique crystal, and the mines were worked by slave labor from across the Affinities.

Criminals, outlanders, undesirables, and anyone unlucky enough to be captured by slavers on the Nexus ended up in those mines. This was the dark secret that had supported the shining kingdom of Neopolis for five hundred years. Merely the blink of an eye when compared to the eons-long history of the Urbille. The Potentates did not dwell here, but they ruled it as if they did.

Clatterpox were allowed into the Inner City only with special work permits, but the rules were far more lax when it came to Offworlders. The Urbille kept a close eye on every non-citizen who visited. Its list of prohibited races and entities was long and strictly enforced. Anyone who wished to do business with the Potentates without coming into contact with the Urbille would have to deal with the Beatific Council here.

Marching through the Outer City, Crag and the Rude Mechanicals were generally ignored. Any Beatifics in the region were busy supervising work gangs of Clatterpox, goblins, and various semi-humanoids. The population out here lived hand-to-mouth, too busy surviving to enjoy things like the Great Plays. They’d get their culture from storytellers and minstrels sitting about trash can fires or huddled into scattered speak-easies. The presence of non-human aliens here came with a good-sized population of offworld creatures used as beasts of burden. Men rode on the backs of six-legged lizards or wingless birds with rainbow plumage. Others of these beasts defied description. Several chariots rolled along the streets, pulled by three-headed ostriches.

The Rude Mechanicals eventually passed through the Crystal Gate, leaving behind the dust and dung-laden streets of the Outer City. Now they walked among crowds of Beatifics and offworld folk of high regard. Crag tried not to stare at the great spiral towers, but they drew his gaze anyway, and he stumbled. Albertus grabbed his arm and held him steady.

“It’s a lot for the opticals to take in the first time you see it,” Albertus said. His porcelain face featured a wide and grim mouth painted in black. The lenses of his opticals glimmered a deep maroon.

Crag grunted. The crystalline streets were dazzling, lined with palms and shaggy cypress. Roof gardens overhung their railings with leaf and blossom. Imported alien trees stood on the corners like bizarre sculptures, while others were arranged into public orchards. Beatifics picked swollen purple fruits from the branches, carrying them away in wicker baskets.

The women of Neopolis wore their hair in great piles upon the tops of their heads. They held these towers of hair together with strands of gold, jewels, and pearls. Their gowns were low-cut and form-fitting all the way to the waist, where they blossomed out like ridiculous upside-down flowers, completely hiding every woman’s legs. Such risque attire would invite scandal in the Urbille. The most popular of faces worn by the ladies of Neopolis was porcelain, as it was in the Urbille. Yet here the common fashion was to inset the porcelain masks with patterns of tiny jewels. The results were intricate, glimmering masterpieces worn by the wealthiest of Beatific women. One could almost invariably judge social status here by the amount of jewels set into the face.

The men of Neopolis had adopted the ancient habit of wearing powdered wigs, some of them as elaborate as the womens’. They wore golden faces, or gold-plated if they could not afford such. Their waistcoats were stylishly dark with furrows of white lace hanging from their wrists and bunched at their necks. Often they wore ancient sabers in gem-crusted scabbards, totems of rank passed from generation to generation. Most of these weapons had never been drawn, let alone used in battle. Like the facial jewels of the women, they were symbols of Beatific status.

A few men passed the Mechanicals wearing faces of simple varnished wood. Specious laughed at them. “Dead trees growing on a living man’s face!” he cackled. Playing the fool was his role in the troupe. “What mad new trend is this? They didn’t wear wooden faces here last year. A dead tree on his face…”

The Mechanicals laughed and moved on through the Beatific crowds.

Crag stayed calm, but inwardly he marveled at the diversity of alien races walking freely here, most of them dressed in trendy Beatific style. Some of the humanoids could have passed for Organic humans, if not for their oversized and grotesque heads. The heads sometimes resembled alternative versions of animals Crag had seen in the zoological gardens of the Urbille. In other cases the aliens were almost shapeless, vibrating masses of rubbery flesh extending pods and tendrils as necessary. He wondered how these shapeless ones had poured themselves into the Beatific outfits that made them look humanoid from the neck down. Or were they actually human Organics from the neck down with monstrously formless heads? It bothered him that he could not locate their eyes.

A six-armed giant walked the lane, led by a chain about its neck. The giant’s tusks were gilded and his eyes had been gouged out long ago. His helmet was horned like a great ox, and his arms were thick as a Beatific’s body. Crag wondered why the blind beast didn’t strike out against his enslaver, annihilating every Beatific within reach. Those massive hands could tear a clockwork body apart in seconds. They could beat these crystalline towers to shards. The giant passed by and Crag’s opticals followed its neck-chain to the hand of a slim young woman.

Her porcelain face bore a swirl of blood-red rubies on the forehead, marking her as an upper-class citizen. She lead the blind giant through the streets like it was a faithful hound trained to never leave her side. The crowds parted before her in the shadow of her pet, and she was gone. Crag saw the giant’s head bobbing above the crowds when he looked backwards.

Somewhere in this mess of privilege and suffering his parents owned an estate. They dwelled somewhere in the central mass of crystalline towers. Or had they been crushed to death by the last meteor storm? The daytime sky was a perfect gold-green that fell to crimson and violet after the double suns went down. Somewhere to the east, beyond the mountains where the slaves of Neopolis worked their lives away, there flowed a vast green sea. Two rivers ran through the crystal city, merging on its east side and flowing as a single tributary toward that far ocean.

How long had it been since his parents tried to convince him to move here with them? They wanted him to give up Caroline, and they never understood why he wouldn’t do it. He hadn’t seen them since the move. What if they came to see the Rude Mechanicals perform? Would he recognize them if he saw them? Neopolis was so crowded, there was very little chance of that happening.

“Look yonder,” Skiptrain pointed at the great crystalline theater standing ahead, a glassy mushroom of a building that could easily hold ten thousand. “The Theatre de Sang et les Ames! The greatest and most respected venue outside the Urbille. You’re in for a treat, Inspector.”

“Impressive,” Crag said.

“We’ll be here for twelve nights,” Noemi said. “It takes that many repeat performances to satisfy the great numbers of our patrons here. Many of them also see the show two or three times.”

Skiptrain led the company to a gleaming dome with a triple gate portico and a row of oak trees providing shade in its front courtyard. Several short aliens were gathered at tables there, drinking from long tubes of glass. They blinked like cats at the troupe as it entered the courtyard. A dragon-shaped sculpture of black glass bit its own tail above the entrance. The wooden sign read OUROBOROS.

Skiptrain entered the lobby in grand style, flourishing his cloak and spreading his arms. A smartly-dressed Beatific rushed forward to kneel before the troupe’s leader and kiss his hand. He gave Noemi the same treatment and offered her a single black rose. He clapped and a cadre of alien servants in white robes came forth to take care of the troupe. They stood no higher than Crag’s waist, and their heads were like those of golden-furred rodents. Their whiskered noses twitched as they assigned themselves each to one member of the troupe.

Crag followed his guide along a corridor lined with wooden doors. The Mechanicals moved in and out of these doors, their servants carrying luggage from the steam carriage. Crag had only what he brought in his shoulder pack, so he lay it across the finely clothed bed. The servant brought him a platter containing three different lubricant vials, all of the highest quality, and a hand-written note from Skiptrain.

MY DEAR INSPECTOR,

WE HAVE PREPARATIONS TO MAKE THIS EVENING FOR THE FIRST OF OUR TWELVE MIDNIGHT PERFORMANCES. I SUGGEST YOU GET SOME REST AND JOIN US IN THE THEATER AT TEN FOR LIBATIONS AND FELLOWSHIP. YOU WILL SEE EACH AND EVERY ONE OF OUR PERFORMANCES DURING THIS ENGAGEMENT, THEREFORE I RELY UPON YOUR JUDGMENT AS TO THE QUALITY OF EACH ONE. MY HOPE IS THAT YOU WILL SEE THE PLAY IMPROVE IN SIGNIFICANT WAYS FROM NIGHT TO NIGHT. I TRUST YOU’LL INFORM ME IF THIS IS NOT THE CASE. THE CRITICS OF NEOPOLIS ARE NOTORIOUSLY KIND TO US, SO WE CAN ALWAYS USE AN HONEST OPINION. ESPECIALLY FROM A WELL-READ MAN LIKE YOURSELF.

YOURS IN EARNEST,

SKIPTRAIN

Crag tried the most expensive lubricant. Smooth as molten gold sliding down his throat, it settled on his gut-gears like a deep calm. He drank half the bottle while sitting among the ferns that crowded his room’s open-air veranda. He watched the odd citizenry of Neopolis shuffle through the streets beneath the crystal towers, watched the rising of six marbled moons, and spotted a winged humanoid moving among the towers.

It moved too fast to be sure, but it might have been a Harvester out gathering Organics babies for the Urbille. But surely there weren’t many Organics in Neopolis? Crag hadn’t seen any yet, unless you counted all the alien life forms. But the Angels of the Potentates only took human babies. The Surgeon never took alien babies either, as far as he knew.

If the Harvester wasn’t here to find an infant for the Urbille, then it must be passing through on its way to some Affinity where the crop was more fresh and available. Or it was returning from such a world and only passing through Neopolis. Perhaps it was here to deliver a baby to Beatific parents. But that wasn’t supposed to happen. The Angels served the Urbille population, not that of Neopolis. Could the Potentates be hiding freshly acquired infants in Neopolis to keep them from the highwayman? Crag wouldn’t put it past the clever bastards.

He lay on the bed for awhile, envisioning Caroline’s favorite face. He would see it again soon. When she recovered from incarceration, she would want a family. Crag remembered the Tribune’s words about receiving his own child. If he didn’t stop Wail from intercepting the Urbille’s supply of newborns, the next child that got whisked off to nowhere could be his own. He wouldn’t let that happen to Caroline, not after everything she’d been through already.

Night fell on Neopolis and the crystalline towers glimmered with chromatic starlight. Now the crowds on the streets were more rowdy, obnoxious, and finely dressed. The night life of the crystal city was even more boisterous than that of the Urbille, probably because of its intense diversity. Gendarmes paced the avenues in black coats and top hats, rifle barrels resting against their shoulders. Their presence here, identical as they were to those in the Urbille, was a constant reminder of the Potentates’ power. The Tribune of Neopolis sat on the central chair of the Beatific Council here. He answered to the Potentates directly, just like his counterpart in the Urbille. Crag didn’t know his name.

Gendarmes guarded the entrance to the crystal theater, scanning Crag with their optical clusters as he approached. He could have told them he was with the troupe, but instead he flashed his badge. The guards nodded and allowed him to pass.

The great theater was topped by a vault of crisscrossing beams of crystal, and a chandelier of ebony stone hung from its center. The seats were already beginning to fill with expectant Beatifics, and the balconies were prepared by the servants of the truly wealthy–those rich enough to afford their fellow Beatifics as servants.

Crag made his way backstage and found the Mechanicals already in costume, gathered about Skiptrain and Noemi, passing bottles of spiced lubricant back and forth. He spoke to them in stage lingo, and Crag understood little of it. Specifications on delivery, blocking, a turn of phrase here or there, a reminder of emotional integrity in a pivotal scene. Nobody seemed to notice Crag or mind his presence. The troupe was a well-oiled machine. He sat back and watched it work its magic.

They showed him to a front-row seat. Beatifics and their inhuman guests had completely filled the venue. Soon the lights went down, and the black curtain went up. With light and sound, speech and movement, with clever choreography and collective grace, the play unfolded. A few minutes into the performance Crag found himself transported into the world of the story. The world of a long-dead Organic Age, where tall ships of wood and silk crossed oceans and built ancient empires.

It began with a shipwreck, and a woman disguising herself as a man in the name of survival. The survivor gained employment with a lovelorn King who believed her male charade. Approaching an elusive Countess on the King’s behalf, the survivor tried to win her hand for the monarch. Instead the Countess fell in love with the emmissary, who she did not realize was a woman in disguise. Or, as the play implied in subtle ways, the Countess knew very well that she had fallen in love with a woman playing the role of a man. Complications ensued and the love triangle led to misunderstanding, chaos, and eventually madness. Crag was fascinated by the character of a man driven to insanity by unobtainable love, then condemned by his peers as mad and sentenced to prison. Finally the survivor’s brother arrived to be mistaken for his male-disguised sister. The Beatifics roared with laughter at the confused and hopelessly binary sex lives of the Ancient Organics. Eventually the male disguise was shed, the protagonist’s true gender was revealed, and the King chose to marry her on the spot. That same day the survivor’s brother married the lofty Countess, who secretly was still in love with her husband’s sister, a love that could never be consummated. Meanwhile, the madman raving in his cell vowed his vengeance on the world.

Crag particularly enjoyed the performance of Specious, who leaped around the stage like a painted monkey. His final comment brought the play to a close.

“And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.”

The crowd of Beatifics, ten-thousand strong, rewarded the players with a standing ovation. Crag joined them, honestly moved by the performance. He met the troupe backstage for revelry and lubricants, as well as conversations with Beatific patrons, press, and hangers-on. Dawn came bright and sharp as crystal to Neopolis, and Crag turned his heart-key along with the rest of the troupe. This marked the end of the festivities, and everyone returned to the OUROBOROS to relax, or formed into small groups to explore the city. Crag decided to stick with Skiptrain and Noemi, who stayed to haunt the stage and its backroom environs like restless spirits.

He listened to them discuss every detail of what went right, what went wrong, what could be improved, what could be perfected, and so on. He had very little chance to interrogate or bring up topics relevant to his investigation. But that was all right. He simply made himself available, willing to help whenever possible, there to provide a helping hand or a clever conversation whenever it was needed.

Crag moved props, cleaned the floors, mended costumes, anything they asked him to do. Skiptrain told him to go enjoy himself more than once, but Crag only nodded and kept on working. “That’s what I’m doing,” he said. “Can’t you see?”

The truth was that he actually did enjoy helping out the Rude Mechanicals. It was a strange kind of family that he had joined, a common purpose shared by a group of dedicated professionals. He might say the same about law enforcement personnel. But being a part of Skiptrain’s crew fed some inner desire that he didn’t even know he had. By the third show he realized how much he respected the Rude Mechanicals and the great tradition their works kept alive.

He liked Skiptrain and Noemi, whatever her real name might be. He liked them all, and stood in awe of their talent. They were some of the best Beatifics the Urbille had to offer. It was for people like them that he wanted to keep the city safe. Once, a long time ago, that truth had been more obvious. He’d lost it somewhere along the way. His job became something he did, not something he believed in. His life became a waiting game. Waiting for Caroline to get out. It was a game he couldn’t bear to play any longer.

He didn’t want to cause the Rude Mechanicals any trouble, and he’d avoid it if he could. But he would find Wail, he would get Caroline back.

On the seventh night, amid contemplations in the silent, empty theater, he spoke with Skiptrain and Noemi over a pricey bottle of Neopolis geargrinder. The show had gotten even better during the course of its run, the performances sharper every night. Crag told them so, and he was glad he didn’t have to lie about that.

“The Urbille loves its tragedies,” Noemi said, “but the people of Neopolis prefer comedies. The two cities are so different in temperament and style.”

“From what I’ve seen, I have to agree,” Crag said.

Skiptrain nodded. “The Beatifics here have easier lives than those in the Urbille,” he said. “Nobody will say it out loud, but the farther away from the Potentates they get, the more people tend to enjoy their lives.”

“What about the slaves?” Crag said. “They’re not enjoying anything here.”

“True, slavery is still illegal in the Urbille,” Skiptrain said, “and there is a growing abolitionist movement here in Neopolis. This city is only a fraction as old as the Urbille, so of course it is less evolved. However, in some respects it’s far beyond the City of the Potentates…”

“Such as?”

“Neopolis enjoys the economical and cultural advantages of alien passage and trade,” Noemi said. “The Urbille is so restrictive, so modulated, that it cannot grow or progress in any way. It’s static. It never changes. It’s a kind of living death that way.”

Crag laughed. “You must really hate it.”

Noemi shook her head. “No, that sounded wrong.”

“I get it,” Crag said. “There’s not much room for creative minds in the Urbille is there? That’s why the poets, the artists, the philosophers, they come here and brave the meteors. There’s freedom of thought here, and freedom of movement. As long as the Potentates get their tribute, it’ll stay that way. It’s only by the sufferance of the Potentates that this glorious chaos is allowed to exist.”

“Very shrewd, Inspector,” said Skiptrain.

“Is that what you are then, Crag?” Noemi asked, inspecting his bronze face. “A servant of Order?”

“And what do you serve?” Crag said.

“Only myself,” Noemi said. “And those I love.”

“Like the troupe you founded all those years ago?”

Noemi started, swiveled her lean head, looked at Skiptrain. His ivory cheeks gleamed white as snow.

“Come on,” Crag said, “it wasn’t hard for me to figure out who you really are.”

“How?”

“How could I miss it?” Crag said. “You’re far more vital to this outfit than any newcomer could be. You know things that you shouldn’t, which means you were here ten years ago when the apprentices were taken. You and Albertus were demolished by the Surgeon, him by the spirits of the dead and you by the highwayman’s sword. You reached the Urbille with Albertus’ head quick enough for a Surgeon to rebuild his body. So why couldn’t you have done the same with Sala North, your beloved leader? So you did.”

“Very clever, Inspector,” said Skiptrain. “You were well-chosen by the Tribune.”

“The thing I can’t figure, though,” said Crag, “is why the change? Why drop the name and reputation that you worked so hard to gain? Why give the troupe to Skiptrain and help him run it disguised by a new name and face?”

Skiptrain and Noemi shared a moment of silence, then she spoke for both of them.

“It was my fault,” she said. Her opticals, glazed by candlelight, stared into the past. Her voice was small and delicate in the vault of the empty theater. “I took them in, all four of them. They were runaways from Clatterpox families. They had lived on the streets for years before I found them. They sneaked into a show and afterwards recognized me on the street. They were so young, and so in love with the craft. I pitied them at first, and then I began to love them.”

“Your apprentices,” Crag said. “The young Organics.”

Skiptrain held her by the shoulders and she leaned into him as she spoke. “I thought we could protect them. Train them to be actors in the grand tradition, give their lives purpose, and with the help of our patrons get them Beatific Conversions. Then they wouldn’t have to live the hellish lives of Clatterpox. So I took them in, we went on tour, and they thrived. They were magnificent.”

“You were on your way back after two years of touring the Nexus,” Crag said. “That’s when it happened.”

Noemi nodded. “I tried to avoid him by taking the Lesser Thoroughfare, but it didn’t work. I still don’t know if it was dumb luck, or if he somehow knew where we were going to be. But he came, and he spoke to them, and he took them away.”

“You feel like you failed them?” Crag asked.

“No,” Noemi said. “I failed the troupe. If our apprentices had been Beatific when we took them on, then we’d still have them. Instead we spent two years training them and had nothing to show for it. I failed as a leader, and lost my physical body in the process.”

Skiptrain spoke for her when she grew silent. “She didn’t want to carry on when we first had her fixed up,” he said. “She felt unworthy to lead the troupe any longer, and wanted me to take her place. I agreed, but only if she stayed with us. So Sala North remained dead, risen into the ranks of theatrical legends. And Noemi was born to replace her.”

“You insisted she stay even though the troupe was yours now?”

“I did,” said Skiptrain. “On this point I was adamant.”

“Why?”

“Haven’t you figured it out yet, Crag? I love her. I always have.”

Noemi took Skiptrain’s hand and pressed it to her porcelain lips. “I’ve never been more happy than during these last ten years,” she said. “Yet here you are, Inspector. Making things difficult for us.”

Crag raised a hand. “Not my intention. I just need to know a few things.”

They regarded him with silence. An opening.

“For starters, what did Wail say to your apprentices before he took them away? Anything you can remember…”

“I didn’t hear anything after he sliced my head off,” Noemi said.

“I did,” Skiptrain said. “I heard ever word. He told them he would take them somewhere safe, to a world where they would not have to endure Conversion. He said that… He said that Conversion was death. That he had come save them from it.”

Crag’s heart-gears popped and a cog in his neck creaked. The words of the child-killer came back to him clear as a bell.

This is what we truly are: Machines built from silver and tin, aluminum and copper, iron and steel. These faces we wear, they’re lies.

Each one of us dies on the day of our Conversion.

“He said that all of us, Beatifics and Clatterpox, are already dead,” Skiptrain said. “That we only believe we’re alive because it’s what we’ve been told.”

The madman’s face, bathed in scarlet candlelight, replaced Skiptrain’s now.

You don’t really think the brains inside our skulls are still alive do you? We’re all damned souls here, trapped each in our personal hells. I free the little ones before they fall into the same prison that holds us for eternity.

Skiptrain’s face returned.

“He said other things that I do not care to repeat…”

That’s all these bodies are, Inspector. Prisons.

I’m setting them free.

“What else did he say?” Crag asked. Sometimes you had to press a source, and this was his moment. “Tell me…what did he say that disturbed you so much?”

Skiptrain nodded and sighed. His fingers traced the contours of Noemi’s face. She lay with her head in his lap.

“You’ll have to ask him yourself,” said Skiptrain.

“Can you arrange it?” Crag said. “It’ll get me out of your hair.”

Skiptrain nodded. “I’ll see to it when we return to the Urbille.”

Crag sat back, took a long sip of the fancy lubricant. “Your helping me puts you in the clear. Is there anything else you can remember? Anything at all…”

Skiptrain and Noemi stood hand-in-hand, a sign that they were ready to go somewhere private and merge. Skiptrain’s opticals flashed crimson for a moment.

“He said he was building an army.”

 

NEXT: “A Matter of Time”

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