WFR is proud to serialize The Lost Machine in support of its author and illustrator, Richard A. Kirk. We will be reprinting the entire novel with its illustrations over the course of the next five weeks with a new chapter every Monday and Wednesday. Wherever possible, formatting has been made to match that available in the e-book. This part of the serialization covers Chapter One. – The Editors
Chapter One: Brickscold Prison
“Open your book to the first page.”
At the sound of his own voice, Lumsden Moss woke from a nightmare. He coughed into a damp pillow and opened his eyes. Dust, raised by his sudden movement, caught the morning light. He ran his tongue over dry lips. It took a few moments for his head to clear. He turned onto his back, taking deep breaths, as though memory was an ember that could be fed into tenuous flame. It was a surprise that he had slept, but finding himself intact, he was relieved that he had. It would give him a reserve of energy to face the day.
Moss sat up, dragging an old blanket with him. His breath was a white vapour in the frigid air. Coughing again, he felt a rasp in his throat that had not been there the day before. It was not the sickness. In an attempt to stay awake, he had become hoarse talking to himself in the dark. Through the night, the feeling that it did not matter if he was sick overwhelmed him. One way or another he was unlikely to last very long. But now, as he recalled the pessimism of those thoughts, he felt a tug of hope – an imperative to leave, if only to ensure that he would not die in Brickscold Prison.
The light revealed the high walls, a desk and a chair, and a cabinet of wooden drawers. Eventually he shed the blanket and looked over the edge of the mattress. With a practiced eye he scanned the floor for quick movements, or disturbances in the dust that would give away the presence of centipedes. Satisfied that there were none, he lowered his feet and rose from the bed, hands splayed for balance, wary of vertigo.
Moss was thin. Food allocation in Brickscold, never generous, had become increasingly meagre in the last few weeks. Without warning, the food had stopped coming. For three days now he had not eaten at all. At first, all he could think of was food. Then, at the end of the second day, his stomach had stopped growling – and the condition was replaced in the night by an ominous tremor in his hands.
Avoiding the sharp corner of the iron bed frame, he went to the corner and relieved himself into a hole in the brick floor. His urine was dark and slow. When he had finished, he checked the floor once again for centipedes. Reassured, he turned and went to his desk.
The deepest of the three drawers opened with a familiar scrape and the smell of aged oak. A tidy pile of six children’s exercise books sat in the bottom. The pages, yellowed and held together with rusty staples, were filled with entries in his handwriting, a precise cursive between the awkward lines printed by the former owners. Moss took a pencil from the drawer and wrote in the top notebook.
18, November, I think. The awful noises finally stopped last night, even the shouting. No one came, thank God. The smoke is gone as well. I’m starving and I’ll die if I stay. I have to leave and avoid any encounters. I don’t have the strength to fight. I can barely stand.
When he was finished, he read the child’s writing on the same page. It described a picnic at a waterfall with the boy’s family. They had found a snapping turtle in the reeds. The story was signed in faded blue ink – as all the entries by Standard Justner, age ten, were. Standard also found a leopard frog that day with its insides poking out “like bubbles of spit.” Moss drifted into a summer past, a child blowing a bubble of spit and the glare of a bright sun.
A distant howl, like a cow in a slaughterhouse, rose from the urinal hole to interrupt Moss’s daydream. He turned his head in the direction of the sound and moved the exercise books into a leather satchel that sat beside the desk. The howl was not repeated but replaced by an insistent grinding, as though a millstone were being turned behind the wall. He sat and pulled the satchel onto the mattress, then tied his bootlaces and buttoned his military greatcoat with stiff fingers. It was time to leave. The door to his cell was ajar, and the dim passage outside was empty except for the eggshells.
Moss stepped into the passage with the satchel in his hands. Mr. Box had arranged the songbirds’-eggshells in a mandala pattern on the floor. Some were blue, others white. The greatest number by far, though, had mottled shells designed to blend, to remain unseen. Mr. Box had collected the shells for decades. He had stolen them from under gutters, or from rafters in the prison attics. He’d stored them in small boxes, which were stacked so high in his cell that he required an overturned bucket to reach the ones at the top. A week previously, the mad librarian had spent hours singing in the hall as he created his masterpiece. To hear him tell it, he had been a lovely tenor once, but years of loneliness had left his voice a crackle.
Dead now, he sat in the passage with his back to his cell door, head bowed to his spread fingers where the Latin names of innumerable songbirds were written in ballpoint pen. The eggshells crunched beneath Moss’s boots. Even though Mr. Box was in no condition to lecture him, Moss felt shame redden his ears.
He encountered no one else in the barrel-vaulted passages. The sickness had been efficient, and its effects on the prison’s inhabitants were evident everywhere. Moss passed through an archway with fresh scratches in the limestone, evidence of a violent skirmish. Reaching a lower level Moss passed an emaciated body, sitting with its knees drawn to its chin, in a marble niche where a drinking fountain had been torn from the wall.
At the infirmary level, a series of rooms had been gutted by fire. The walls of each room were blacker than the one before; finally he passed through a room where the soot on the bricks was as thick as lichen. He did not investigate the charred mounds on the floor near the guard’s table; the shouting and the reek of acrid smoke three days before still haunted him. Catching his eye as he left the infirmary was a mass of something that looked like burnt sugar encrusted to the wall. Before looking away he saw that it was embedded with teeth. It was an image he could have done without.
Finally Moss opened a door into a wide exterior passage. The smell of heavy diesel vehicles hung in the air. Jettisoned equipment lay on the ground, evidence of a hurried exit. A dead guard had been placed against the wall, still on a stretcher, a uniform jacket tucked around his face. Moss removed his glasses and pocketed them. Silhouetted at the end of the passage was a pair of iron gates he had not seen since the first day, twelve years before, when the guards had torn the cowl from his head. As was the case then, his eyes smarted from the adjustment to the light, but this time he didn’t mind: he had lived too long in twilight.
He rubbed his unshaven chin with the back of his hand. Beyond the gates lay a life he had been forbidden. He tightened his grip on the satchel and walked spindle-legged over the sodden ground, glancing at the numerous closed doors on either side of the passage, expecting one to open at any moment. The walls echoed as he splashed through puddles of oil and water. He reached the gates, allowed himself a deep breath, and squinted through the ironwork.
A crow, chased by smaller birds, rose from a wind sculpted tree. Twisted strands of grass emerged from the snow and rattled against the crust, but it was a person standing in the yard that caught his attention and set his heart racing. Moss looked over his shoulder. Going back inside was unthinkable. Seeing that the gates were loose, the locking mechanism brutalized, he shoved them outward. The dry hinges juddered, showering the bricks with rust that looked like flakes of dried blood.
The stranger, who had also been watching the crow, turned toward the sound. He wore a many-buttoned black coat that hung from narrow shoulders and fluted from the hips on the way to the ground. The coat’s tattered hem dragged through dried weeds. His head was wound in black cloth through which circular, black lenses protruded. Far more unsettling than the man’s unreadable gaze were the marble-sized disks of glass that drifted around his head, apparently unhindered by the laws of gravity. These objects – black, green, blue, violet and white – orbited like elliptical planets. Occasionally there was a delicate clink as one object encountered another. The stranger walked toward Moss and came to a stop several feet away.
“I’m not looking for any trouble,” said Moss. In his compromised condition a physical confrontation would be disastrous. He looked past the man to the pines that encroached on the yard, hoping to spot somewhere he could disappear in a chase. There was an opening in a thicket of blackberries between the tree trunks. That would be his goal, if it came to it. His hand tightened protectively around the satchel’s handle.
The inscrutable lenses faced him, reflecting his image.
“I’m not here to give you any trouble,” the stranger said.
“Who are you?” Moss said, resisting the urge to look away. “Are you out here by yourself?”
“Yes.” The man looked up at the imposing mass of the prison. “As you can see, I am quite alone, out here.” He lowered his head to face Moss again. “My name is Irridis. I was travelling in the forest nearby and became curious.”
Moss watched the glass objects circle Irridis.
“You’re a long way from home,” Moss said. He gestured at the prison with his free hand. “There is nothing but misery to be found in there.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Irridis paused, then added, “but I won’t be staying much longer, because I am on my way to the city. What about you? Where are you headed?”
“I have business there also,” Moss said.
“And what is your business in the city, if I might ask?”
“I want to find the creature responsible for my being here,” said Moss.
“But you must admit, it is an interesting choice of words.”
Moss regarded the man and the glass disks as they revolved with silent menace. He’d said too much. It was dangerous talking to this man. Moss inwardly cursed his indiscretion.
“How long have you been in Brickscold?”
“Long enough,” said Moss, “so you will forgive me if I say good day and be on my way.”
“I was only going to say,” said Irridis, “that a good many things will have changed since you were incarcerated. For all you know, this, ah, creature might be long gone, or even dead.”
“And why would you care?” asked Moss.
“I don’t. I was simply going to suggest we travel together. A man travelling alone presents an easy target.”
Darkness threatened the edges of Moss’s sight. His lack of food and water was making him dizzy. He could not be certain of anything. He took several steps before the man’s voice stopped him.
“As you wish, but be careful, sir. Just this morning I saw a pack of timber wolves to the south, making their way across the ridge. I would recommend you stay off the highlands and try to find the coast. The wolves will stay high up where the deer have gone to graze.”
Moss turned to face Irridis. The man’s coat flapped in a sudden wind, and steam rose from his head. It looked so otherworldly that a moment passed before Moss realized it was simply the man’s breath working its way through the cloth.
“Thank you, I will.”
“Be very careful. Diseased and starving criminals have been scattering into the countryside. They are desperate and will kill you for your boots. Avoid building a fire, if you can, until you are far away from here.”