DOCTOR WAIL (a.k.a. “THE SURGEON,” a.k.a. “THE HIGHWAYMAN”)

Previous Chapters:
Chapter1  Chapter2  Chapter3
Chapter4  Chapter5  Chapter6
Chapter7  Chapter8  Chapter9 
Chapter10
  Chapter11
Chapter 12  Chapter 13

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NOTE: I announced a while back that this chapter would be accompanied by a special illustration inked by the great Kelley Jones (BATMAN, DEADMAN, ALIEN, etc.). Well, you can’t rush genius! Kelley is still working on the piece, and I’ll post it as a “bonus” illustration as soon as I get it. Meanwhile, I did the above piece, which gives us a long-distance look at The Highwayman. We’ll see him in much greater detail when KJ finishes his inking process. Thanks for reading–please tell a friend and help spread the word. Cheers!–John

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Chapter 14. 

The Highwayman

The morning after the troupe’s twelfth performance, when the nocturnal celebrations had died away, the Rude Mechanicals loaded up their steam carriage. They moved through the streets of Neopolis with Crag at their middle, almost one of them now. They waved at the Beatific fans hailing them along the streets or from passing coaches.

Crag sat on the back edge of the steam carriage, his feet dangling above the road. He watched the spiral towers gleam like sculpted ice above the smoke and squalor of Neopolis. The excitement died when they entered the Clatterpox territories. Crowds of worker drones marched toward their shifts in factories, foundries, and industrial complexes. Everything in the lower depths of the city was owned by those in the crystal towers, the wealthiest of all Beatific families. So wealthy they had bought their way out of the Urbille and established an extended version of the Potentates’ domain.

Crag had no idea what role his parents played in the machinations of Neopolis. The city had swallowed them up, and he had lost touch. He didn’t want to leave without seeing them, yet here he was heading out of town.

It’s the job. I have to do the job.

I’ll come back when Caroline is with me.

“We mustn’t stay too long in Neopolis,” Skiptrain had said last night. “The fans here are fickle. During long engagements they inevitably turn against the performers. They like their entertainments best when they come and go like capricious lovers who keep them at a distance.”

The man certainly knew his business. Sala–Noemi–taught him everything she knew over the last two centuries. They were practically one mind in two bodies at this point. The way Crag used to be with Caroline. A constant connection that ached like a phantom limb ever since it was cut off.

The road ran across a patch of strawberry fields toward the twin obelisks that marked the porte. Nine gendarmes with rifles guarded the spot, but they knew the Rude Mechanicals and let them pass without questions. The actors were draped in cloaks, robes, and waistcoats of expensive fabric, gifts from their patrons in the crystal towers. Strands of precious stones and clever jewelry glimmered on their limbs. Their porcelain faces offered red and purple smiles, and pools of painted shadow surrounded their opticals. The only face that remained the same was that of Skiptrain. He wore the gold-and-ivory mask that marked his status. It was the same face that Sala North had worn in her heyday.

She was still an excellent actress, whatever name she chose to call herself. In every one of the twelve performances Crag had witnessed, Noemi was the standout. Her words and tone, her movement and impeccable timing, these things gave her the power to evoke spectator emotions. Establishing that empathic bond turned Art into Alchemy. It activated subtle changes inside the hearts and minds of those exposed to it. Noemi’s performance enlightened everyone around her, both onstage and off. He almost thanked Skiptrain for having her rebuilt after the Surgeon sliced her apart. But that would be a crass thing to say, so he kept it to himself.

On the other side of the porte the Greater Thoroughfare ran through a dry and dusty tableland where tufts of desert grass grew in clumps. Spires of speckled rock stood here and there, and winged lizards flitted from stone to stone. The road wound toward a range of mountains on the horizon.

Skiptrain took a small box from his satchel, a rectangle with a tiny lock built into the side. He took out a small golden key, inserted it, and turned it clockwise. The top of the box flipped open on hidden springs. A tiny bird made of brass and copper filaments stood revealed. Its eyes were tiny diamonds. Skiptrain whispered to the bird and it sprang to life, flapping tiny wings like a real hummingbird. It swirled into the air, zoomed above Crag’s hat, and sped off toward the mountains. In another second it had disappeared altogether.

A curtain of dust and sand blew across the road. Organic opticals might weep and sting, but the Rude Mechanicals kept right on walking. A yellow sun burned high in the sky, and banks of green-yellow clouds hung above the desert. If there were any moons in the sky here, Crag couldn’t see them.

The clockwork bird was either a toy, a spying device, or a messenger. Skiptrain had promised to contact Wail. Crag trusted the man to keep his word. The troupe was heading back to the Urbille for a few days before their next crossworld engagement. A perfect time for Skiptrain to set a meet. Crag had already cleaned and polished his sidearm to prepare for it.

The troupe passed into a world of tree-like fungi and colossal mushrooms. The road bisected forests of living crystal and arched into sculpted bridges above rivers of flame. The occasional heap of ruins marred the wilderness, and sometimes smaller settlements burned watchfires in sight of the road. In another world a pack of elephantine insects had gnawed a mighty forest into kindling, building massive nests from rotting logs. In the next world crowds of ghosts stood on either side of the road, weeping and pleading in the midst of a phantom metropolis.

“We’re about halfway to the Urbille now,” Albertus said. He looked through a telescopic lens at the remains of a vast temple on the summit of a blue mountain. He showed Crag the vision, cackling with amusement. “The Hall of Vitrekeus, where my ancestors ruled a kingdom two thousand years ago. Once it was a place of glory and learning, but now it serves only to mark the halfway point between Neopolis and the Urbille.”

Crag squinted and took another look at the stately ruins. A hundred colors of moss and lichen smothered the stones. A few stubborn trees blossomed between the shattered towers.

“It’s very beautiful,” Crag said.

“My people gave all this up when they came to the Urbille,” Albertus said. He snapped his fingers with a grinding of tiny gears. “They traded their world for this…” His fingers removed the porcelain mask he wore. His naked silver skull stared at Crag. “Immortality,” said the skull. The colors of twilight swam across its polished forehead.

Crag had never seen anyone else’s naked face except that of his wife.

“Why show me this?” he said.

Albertus replaced the mask. “Just to remind you, Inspector.”

“Remind me of what?”

“Of what we are now,” said Albertus. “All of us.” He lay the barrel of his long rifle across his shoulder.

“You’re a strange bird, Albertus,” Crag said.

Albertus shook his head, stirring the feathers rising from his hat.

“Thank you,” he said.

A world of twenty moons followed as the road ran along the coast of a turquoise sea. Spires of green rock rose from the ocean like the towers of a sunken city. They might have been actual towers in some bygone age, but now the barnacles and crustaceans were their only tenants. Crag witnessed so many wonders on the return trip that he grew immune to wonders. Strange worlds passed like weary dreams, and after a while he walked in a perpetual daze.

Now the road ran straight as an arrow through a black marshland. Willows grew from snake-infested fens. The night was cold and humid, as if a storm was about to break. Or a rabidity, something that should only occur in the Urbille. A cry from Skiptrain at the head of the troupe halted all movement. The carriage belched steam from its exhaust pipes, and its mechanical guts rumbled. The brain inside its lucid dome seethed with electricity. Crag had never seen it do that before.

A rabidity or an electrical storm was on the way. Or something worse. Crag was about to yell out “Why have we stopped?” when he saw the dark figure on the road ahead. Still as a statue it sat on a horse of gleaming black metal. Orange embers burned in the steed’s nostrils, which expelled black smoke. Its iron hooves sat quiet on the roadway. Crag would have heard those hooves approaching, so he knew the horseman had been waiting here for some time.

The rider wore a triple-pointed hat to match his pitch-dark cape and gauntlets. A greatsword with a silvered hilt hung from his left hip, a long-handled pistol holstered on his right thigh. The highwayman’s face was a masterpiece of bronze. The face of a man bred to war and darkness and sacrifice. His opticals were black mirrors reflecting every gaze they received.

Crag stood among the silent actors. The fingers of his right hand twitched. He rolled his fingers, popping tiny bubbles of air caught inside their lubrication tubes. The joints of his wrist gave a tiny squeak, but nobody else heard it.

Skiptrain raised his hand to wave at the highwayman. The rider did not return the greeting, but slid off his clockwork horse. The steed was a fine example of Urbille technology at its best. Only a Surgeon would know how to build such a fantastic beast. Wail’s mount made the other mechanical steeds Crag had seen look like clumsy machines. Its red opticals blazed with internal light and heat.

Wail approached the Rude Mechanicals with patience and grace. Crag went to stand beside Skiptrain and Noemi. Mistaking his intentions, they moved away from him. He faced the highwayman alone.

“Inspector Crag,” Skiptrain said from the side of the road. “Meet the Surgeon.”

The highwayman halted before Crag and doffed his hat. “Inspector.”

“Hello, Doctor Wail.”

“I hear you are anxious to meet with me,” said Wail. He took another step closer. The pommel of his greatsword gleamed through the opening of his dark cloak.

Crag’s fingers twitched again. He resisted the urge to draw his gun.

“You know who I work for,” Crag said.

“Yes.”

“I need to bring you back,” Crag said. “To stand before the Tribune.”

“I see,” Wail said.

“Failing that, I’m to bring him your head,” Crag said. “I’m giving you a choice.”

“How terribly generous of you.”

“I’d rather take you in whole,” said Crag, “give you a chance to explain yourself. But I’m taking you in either way. You decide.”

Wail threw his head back and laughed. His bronze face turned to Skiptrain, Noemi, and the rest of the troupe. “It appears we stand at cross purposes, my friend,” he said. “Let’s settle the matter in the traditional manner. Like gentlemen.”

Crag’s hand found its way to the grip of his pistol before he realized it. He didn’t draw it though. Not yet. The Surgeon’s black opticals stared at him. He said nothing.

“A duel,” said Wail. “I offer you the choice of weapon, Crag. Will you face me with sword or pistol?”

“I could just shoot you right now,” Crag said.

Right in the forehead, a bullet to the brain, the quickest and most successful way to kill any Beatific. He knew how to exploit that weakness. One clean shot to the brain was all it ever took. There was no coming back from that.

“Very well,” said Wail, throwing back his cloak. “Pistols it is.” He unbuckled the greatsword and handed it to Specious, who was suddenly at his side. Perhaps they had played out this scene before. Wail walked to Crag and turned his back. Specious’ porcelain smile coaxed Crag into doing the same.

Let them have their flair for drama. It would still end with a headshot.

The Surgeon’s back felt massive against Crag’s narrow shoulders. Specious began the count. The duelists took their first step, then a second, a third, and so on. At the count of ten the custom was to turn, draw, and fire. Or run, and be branded a coward forever.

Six…

Seven…

Beatific dueling had been illegal inside the Urbille for centuries. But this was the open road. The only laws out here were the ones that could be enforced.

Eight…

Nine…

Ten.

Crag spun about, drawing and firing in a single motion. The pistol kicked and roared in his hand. He watched the barrel of Wail’s musket belch a gout of flame and smoke. The tri-corner hat went flying from Wail’s head.

A tremendous impact drove Crag backwards. The musket ball, forged of something harder and lighter than iron, ripped through his chest near the left shoulder. He staggered backwards. He was entitled to another shot. So was the highwayman.

Crag squeezed the trigger again. The second shot went wild as he fell. There was no second shot from the highwayman. The back of Crag’s skull slammed against the pavement. His face snapped off and rolled away as the wind took his hat. He lay on his back, the wound in his chest steaming, popping, spitting sparks. A few shattered cogs and wires protruded from the round hole. Something inside him groaned and whirred. His vital gears slipped, his innards growling and pinging.

He looked into the sky above the swampland. It was full of stars and moons and glimmering nebulae. The sheer beauty of it washed over Crag as he lay there leaking oil onto the road. The winking stars took his breath away.

“Now that we’ve settled that issue,” Wail said, “perhaps we can discuss more weighty matters. Do you accept defeat or should I cut you into pieces and drop them into the swamp? The choice is still yours.”

Wail’s boot pressed Crag’s wrist against the road, so he couldn’t have fired another shot if he wanted to. Crag let the weapon go, unwrapping his fingers. The Surgeon scooped up the pistol and it disappeared in the depths of his cloak. The tiny brass bird flew out of his other hand and landed in Skiptrain’s upheld box. Skiptrain closed the box and tucked it away.

Wail helped Crag to his feet while the Rude Mechanicals watched in quiet fascination. Crag picked up his face and snapped it back on. Wail examined the hole his musket ball had made in Crag’s chest.

“I can fix that,” he said, clapping Crag on the back. “You’ll move a bit more slowly until then. Perhaps it will encourage you to listen, which is all I ask of you.”

Crag nodded.

Listen. Play his game, and live.

There will be another chance to take him down.

Crag wouldn’t give up the dream of Caroline’s early release so easily. But he’d have to play it smart. Set everything up for the next head shot. The one he wouldn’t miss. If Wail wasn’t going to kill him, then he had an advantage. Play along. Be an actor. Set it up.

“I’ll listen,” Crag said.

They sat him up on the steam carriage, his back resting against a crate of costumes. Wail rode his iron steed alongside the slow-moving vehicle. The Rude Mechanicals strolled down the road in their usual unhurried fashion. A gentle rain began, dampening the road as they moved along its shimmering length.

Crag wasn’t in pain, but his reduced mobility was annoying. His biggest problem was the empty shoulder holster where his gun should be sitting. But the highwayman wasn’t about to give that back to him. Not yet anyway. Crag would win his confidence.

“I understand that you’ve accumulated quite a file on me,” Wail said. The triangular hat was back on his head now, despite the bullet hole in its peak.

“Tracking information is part of my job,” said Crag. “It’s the part I’m best at, as you can tell from my shooting.”

Wail chuckled. “I used to be like you. I served the Potentates, and I gloried in it as my life’s ultimate purpose. I learned so many things, but I never questioned what I knew. Not until it was too late.”

“Too late for your son,” Crag said.

The black opticals focused on him for a moment, then turned back to the road.

“You think you know who I am,” Wail said. “And I suppose you do, at least on the surface. You know who I used to be, you know what drove me to do the things I do. You know more terrible secrets than you can even bear to admit.”

“What I don’t know is why,” Crag said. “You’re stealing young Organics. Skiptrain says you’re building an army. What’s it for?”

“What is any army for?”

“To conquer,” Crag said.

“Or to wage a revolution.”

“You really think a small community of Organics can win a revolt against the Potentates? They have the armies of worlds at their disposal. They have powers that make them masters of all they survey. Lords of the Nexus. They conquered everything, and you think you can take it from them with an army of stolen children?”

“You see, this is where your ignorance begins to make itself apparent. The Potentates, for all their majesty and omnipotence, did not conquer these worlds. They didn’t build the Nexus. They stole it. They’ve stolen everything, for eons. We’re stealing it back.”

“You expect me to believe the Potentates stole the Nexus from its original owners, so you must know who they are. Enlighten me, Wail. What theory is it that drives your skin-and-bones revolution?”

“No theory, just facts,” Wail said.

The troupe passed through the next porte into a range of hills thick with golden grass. Long-necked beasts dipped their snouts into a nearby lake. A sea of jagged ruins lined the southern horizon.

“Let’s hear your facts then,” Crag said. “Make me understand.”

First I’ll understand what you are, then I’ll make you trust me.

Then you’re mine.

“Are you familiar with the Ministere de Stone?” Wail said.

Crag shook his head. Wail went on at great length about bodiless spirit-lords inhabiting the Nexus. These ephemeral entities, existing outside of space and time, created the roads between the worlds eons ago and used it to weave an empire of worlds together.

“This road is their road, as is the Lesser Thoroughfare,” Wail said.

“You speak to these stone spirits?”

“They came to me when I needed them the most,” Wail said. “My son and wife were dead. Murdered by the Potentates.”

“Came to you how?”

“They usually manifest as faces of living stone,” Wail said. “They saw my pain, and they promised me vengeance. They became my patrons. I’ve learned many things from them, almost as much as I learned from serving the Potentates. I make the perfect insurrectionist because I know how the Potentates work. I know their arcane sciences, and I know their Great Lie. They built a new world with this lie, atop the blood and bones of the old one.”

“Where did you take the Organics?” Crag asked. There was an edge of madness in Wail’s words. Crag needed something concrete to bring him back around.

“You’re asking the wrong question.”

Crag waited, playing along.

“You should be asking: Why do the Potentates need Organics in their domain? You should be asking: Why are Organic humans so rare across the Inner Affinities? You should be asking: Why do the Harvesters keep doing their jobs when the Urbille is overpopulated and in danger of crumbling under its own weight?”

“Okay,” said Crag. “Why?”

“That is indeed the question, Inspector,” Wail said. “Why do the Potentates bring children to their city as Organics, have them raised there until the age of sixteen, and require by law that every human shed their physical bodies at that time. Why Conversion? Why transform these frail, fleshy beings into mechanized entities that live forever?”

“The Potentates can do whatever they want,” said Crag. “They own everything, so they set the rules.”

“You’re missing the bigger picture,” said Wail. “Think about the yearly intake of Organic infants in the Urbille. Thousands of babies harvested primarily from the Outer Affinities. Now consider the amount of Conversions done every year compared to that number. As a former Urbille Surgeon I can tell you that the number of Conversions per year matches or exceeds the amount of Organics brought into the city, but not by much. Think now, Crag, about all those bodies shed like suits of clothing, all that flesh and bone, all that siphoned blood. The only thing we retain when we’re Converted is our brains.”

Wail paused to laugh. Crag thought he heard anger inside the humor.

“The brain, they tell us, is the source of life and consciousness,” Wail said. “So we transplant it into a Beatific or a Clatterpox body, and we preserve that life indefinitely. We say goodbye to the flesh. Goodbye to the flesh, Crag.”

The caravan rolled on through a purple morning shot with red clouds. Flocks of winged amphibians soared on warm updrafts.

“Where do you think all of that abandoned flesh goes?” Wail said.

“You did thousands of Conversions, Doc,” Crag said. “You tell me.”

“Should I?” Wail asked. “Should I tell you?”

Crag waited.

The Surgeon sighed through his bronze lips.

“Now you’ve asked the right question,” said Wail. “You’ve come all this way, and you deserve an answer. Like me, like everyone in the Urbille, you deserve to know exactly what it is you’re serving.”

Crag watched a winged thing swoop out of the sky and grab a tiny rodent in its claws, pulling it into the sky even as it devoured the carcass.

“The Potentates are carnivores,” Wail said. “They always have been. Highly evolved, yes. Capable of bending reality with the forces at their command, yes. But they cannot change their essential nature. They’re meat-eaters unlike any other. They have an abiding and all-consuming passion for human flesh. It’s a pathology with them. During the last Organic Age they hunted down nearly every human being in the Affinities, depopulating entire worlds. They gathered millions of humans into their great city, promising them wealth and eternal life. They built the Urbille to serve their gross appetites, and its purpose is solely to sustain them.”

Crag took off his top hat, rubbed his skull with a clicking hand.

The words of the child-killer came back to him again, a melody that would never leave his ears, a ghost that would haunt him forever.

I’m saving them, Inspector. From becoming like us.

From losing everything that makes them human.

“They eat us, Crag,” said Wail. His voice grew horribly soft. “They’ve eaten us all. They’ve built an obscene empire out of their own mad guilt. A vast machine filled with lesser machines to serve their endless hunger. Forever harvesting our kind like beasts in a crossworld cage. Managing a vast cosmic game preserve of human cattle. Those are your Potentates.”

“Even if that’s true,” Crag said. “Even if they eat human flesh…they give us new bodies. They give us new life…”

“Do they? Do you really believe we’re alive?”

The child-killer’s words again.

Prisons. That’s all these bodies are.

“Not even the Surgeons know the truth of it,” Wail said. “The Ministere de Stone showed me the horrible truth. So now I bring the truth to those I liberate.”

“And the Rude Mechanicals?” Crag asked.

“We know all of it,” said Skiptrain. He walked nearby, listening to the conversation.

“That’s why you steal the Organics,” Crag said. “To keep them from becoming like us. To save them from being…”

Devoured,” said Wail. “It’s the only word appropriate for this context.”

“Why wouldn’t they just kill us?” Crag said. “Why bother to preserve our minds in these mechanical bodies? We’re still human, right?”

“I used to believe so,” said Wail.

“So did I,” said Skiptrain.

“The truth is often painful,” Noemi said. “None moreso than this one.”

“The Potentates are so wracked with guilt over consuming the flesh of fellow sentient beings, they can’t stand it,” Wail said. “So they alleviate that guilt with the gift of Conversion, fooling themselves and us into thinking there is no death involved, no predation. They justify feeding on us by sparing our brains and transforming us into self-aware mechanoids. And they’ve done it for longer than anyone remembers.”

Crag couldn’t wrap his mind around a guilt that deep. Or a hunger that ancient.

“We’re going to bring them down,” Wail said. “With the help of the StoneFathers, we’ve set a plan in motion that will make them pay.”

“Where is your army?” Crag asked. “All these Organics you’ve saved?”

“A place called Gaeya,” Wail said. “A world far removed from the Nexus.”

“How does one reach such a place?”

“Perhaps I’ll tell you, Crag,” said Wail. “But first tell me why you’re hunting me.”

“You’ve stepped up your game,” Crag said. “You’ve been robbing from Harvesters, taking Organics before they even reach the Urbille. I’d like to know how you do that too, but I’ll leave it alone for now. You’ve become such a thorn in their side that they sent me to track you down.”

“But this isn’t your job,” said Wail. “You’re a city Inspector. You keep the Urbille free of crime. Yet here you are on the Thoroughfare, outside your jurisdiction. What did they promise you?”

Crag bristled.

Don’t tell him. Keep your secrets.

“My wife,” he said. “She’s been in prison twenty years.”

Why are you telling him this?

“I bring you in, I get her back. Otherwise it’s another thirty years.”

It felt good to say it out loud.

“Why did they take her?” Noemi asked.

The troupe passed through another porte, crawling ever closer to the Urbille.

“There was a child,” Crag said.

Don’t tell them this. You’ve never told anyone.

“A dirt-caked, shoeless little boy from a Clatterpox family,” Crag said. The memories flooded into his brain and out his mouth. “She found him in the gutter outside our flat one morning. Little fellow was sleeping on top of a steam grate. Marks of abuse on the limbs and torso. Signs of parental neglect.”

The entire troupe listened to Crag now. They walked a cold road through snowbound hills. Flurries drifted on the night wind.

“Caroline couldn’t wait to get our own child,” Crag said. “We were both eager to start a family. It wouldn’t have been that much longer until our number came up. I guess she was a bit too eager. She gave the boy food and tended his wounds. Gendarmes came by later and returned him to his Clatterpox folks.

“His name was Andre. He came back two days later, eyes blackened, a broken finger. There were other signs of abuse, more invasive ones. We reported it, but the gendarmes did nothing as usual. The Clatterpox kept abusing their charge, and Andre kept showing up at our doorstep. After two weeks of it, she couldn’t take anymore. She hid the boy from the gendarmes when they came around this time. I didn’t find out until I got home that night. She begged me not to give him up, but I told her we had no legal right to keep him.

“We argued all night, and in the end she won. She knew Andre couldn’t stay with us forever, but she refused to give him back to his abusers. She was right. It only took three days for the gendarmes to figure things out. I was out on a case when they came and arrested her. Took the boy back to his shitheel parents and put Caroline on trial. It’s always been against the law for Beatifics to take in Clatterpox children, so she had no real chance. She denied that I had any knowledge of what she’d done, but I know the Tribune didn’t believe her. He needed me, though, so he let it slide. He sentenced Caroline to the labyrinth. Fifty years for helping a lost child.”

“For twenty years they’ve held your wife prisoner,” said Wail. “And you serve them like a blind dog, whipped when its nose turns the wrong way. You must truly love this woman.”

Crag said nothing. It was true.

“You’re a lucky man,” Wail said. “They took my wife too. And my son. But I’ll never get them back.”

“I’ll never get Caroline back either,” said Crag. “Unless I bring you in.”

The highwayman nodded.

“Well, then I suppose we’d best not disappoint the Tribune.”

“What does that mean?”

“Only the Tribune has the ability to release someone from the labyrinth. So you’ll have to keep your word.”

“Are you serious?” Crag asked. “After all this, you’re going to give yourself up?”

“Do you really want your wife back, Crag?”

“More than anything.”

“Then you no longer work for the Tribune,” Wail said. “You work for me.”

Crag let the words sink in. The night wind whistled through the hole in his chest.

“In that case,” Crag said, “can I have my gun back?”

 

NEXT: “The Urbille”

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