The Lost Machine: Chapter Eight

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 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 Eight. To read past chapters, click here. – The Editors

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Chapter Eight: Push Comes to Shove

For two days they had explored the city while they waited for a spot on a boat going north. Finally, the time had arrived and they needed only to make their way to a place on the seawall where a fishing boat awaited them.

They had been sitting for an hour in the terminal house waiting for the cable car that would take them down to sea level. The waiting room was small and humid. Beyond the fogged windows in front of them, an unseasonably  warm wind stippled the glass with rain. It was not ideal weather to be embarking on a voyage, but in a few weeks the seas would become unpredictable. Behind Moss and Irridis, on the other side of a thick wall of green glass, the massive wheels, belts and gears that raised and lowered the cable cars turned slowly. It would be another fifteen minutes before the car arrived. The floor of the tiled room was covered in cigarette stubs and smelled of mildew. Two other passengers waited on the carved benches: an old man holding a caged bird, and a woman knitting a nondescript article of clothing with her eyes closed. Both had moved to the opposite end of the room when Moss and Irridis entered.

“What are they?”

The question took Moss by surprise. He stopped rubbing the lenses of his glasses with his t-shirt and looked up.

“Pardon?” said Moss.

“In your bag.” He pointed to the satchel between Moss’s feet.

Moss was wary. Irridis had been unusually quiet throughout the day, and he had never shown interest in the satchel before.

Through the windows, images shifted in the rainwater. Hues mingled, sharpened and then vanished, only to be replaced by others. These colours were all that could be seen of the people passing by the terminal. An amorphous black shape separated and grew rapidly. A pink blob emerged from the black shape, came up toward the door handle and finally resolved itself into a hand at the last moment. The door flew open, admitting the noise of the street on a gust of wind. A thickset man with red braids sprouting from his head at unlikely angles took a spot against the wall. He rested his weight on one leg and pulled the heel of the other up against the tile.  Reaching into the pocket of a rubber raincoat, he produced a newspaper and became immediately absorbed in a story below the fold.

Moss leaned forward and began idly picking at his fingernails. “The notebooks, you mean?” he said. Irridis nodded. “They belonged to my students. It’s all I have of them. I had the books among my things for marking when Starling murdered them.”

“Why is it so important for you to have these reminders?” Irridis asked. Moss stopped picking his nails.

“Because,” he said, “they were my students. I saw them every day, and my heart was broken when they died.”

“But, are you sure they were worth this remembrance?”

“What?”

“Don’t get angry. I am just asking, are you sure you knew these children as well as you imagine? Maybe you should ask yourself why the question makes you so uncomfortable.”

“What’s your problem today?” asked Moss. Irridis turned his head. “Irridis?”

“Yes?”

“I’ve been thinking that maybe I should continue on my own – that maybe it’s time to part company.”

The other man regarded him through impenetrable black lenses. “If that is what you wish,” said Irridis finally. “But at least let me accompany you to the boat to say goodbye.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I don’t want to end on a sour note,” said Irridis.

Moss nodded. In the uncomfortable silence that followed, he wished he had thought to grab a newspaper. At least that would have given him something to fidget with. As he weighed whether or not he had time to go in search of one, two more men walked into the room. Moss sat up, suddenly alert. One of the men was small and rat-like, his nose running from a cold. Beneath the layers of his ankle-length leather coat was the unmistakable outline of a truncheon. The man behind him raised his eyebrows and nodded in recognition to Moss. It was the inmate from the market. He opened his oilskin.

Moss looked at Irridis to see if his companion was aware of the sudden presence of danger. To his surprise, Irridis sat with his head bowed in a meditative posture. The floating pieces of glass hovered around his head. Moss nudged him in the side of the leg.

At that moment, the two other passengers – clearly sensing that something violent was about to occur in the confined space of the waiting room – rushed out into the rain. Irridis raised his head and sat upright on the wooden bench. The hiss of rain and the grinding of the cable car machinery blocked all other sound. The pieces of glass that had been bobbing round his head like lazy bees now fell into place on their customary plane around his collar. He looked at the three men, with his gloved hands in his lap.

“You know these men,” Irridis said to Moss. It was not a question.

The first attack came from the rat man. He came on swift feet, pulling the truncheon from his coat in a practiced motion. It came up and over in a fluid arc, quicker than Moss could track, and landed in the empty seat where Irridis should have been. The attacker stopped his weapon just short of the window. Irridis, who had dodged to the side with cat-like speed, came in low and fast with a kick, catching the rat man in the back of the knees.

The convict and the man with the red braids moved forward.

The convict shouted at Moss. “Grab his arms.” Moss stepped back. The rat man had fallen heavily on his back, and the truncheon clattered on the tiles. Irridis kicked again. He spun into the air, catching the tattooed man in the cheek with a boot heel. The man with the red braids used the confusion to grab Irridis around the waist and slam him into the glass wall. The glass held, bouncing Irridis forward. His attacker brought up a foot, catching him in the throat. The momentum carried Irridis back into the glass, and this time it did shatter, filling the air with shards which rained down on the floor like hail.

Moss leapt at the attacker, but the rat man, having recovered himself from the floor, brought the truncheon down on his head. There was a flash of light, and he could hear a sickening ping go through the wood of the truncheon. He fell to his hands and knees in the shattered glass. The short man began to rain vicious blows across his shoulders. Moss grabbed the man’s legs and tripped him. It was a short-lived gain, however, as powerful hands grabbed Moss’s arms and hoisted him to his feet.

“What are you helping that scum for?” the convict spat in his face. The skin on the man’s head was scraped where he had been hit, and blood was beading along the red lines. “These Witches are a disease.” He gripped Moss’s throat, pressing hard on his larynx. “Maybe you and him are lovers, eh?” His breath stank.

Moss struggled against the convict’s grip. He was losing consciousness when he heard a knife leave its sheath. The rat man pushed against his body. He felt the pressure of the blade’s point against his skin and then the sharp pain as it went a millimetre into the flesh beneath his jaw. All three men were pressed together in a clump, breathing like horses after a race. The air welling into the room through the open pane was damp. Moss suddenly wondered if his death would come as a creeping cold or a hot blast of pain. His vision grew dark at the edges. A memory flashed in his mind, a group of children walking away from him in the woods. Then it was gone. He felt tears on his cheek.

“I never liked you in the Bricks,” said the convict. “You was always reading them books. The Librarian, we used to call you behind your back. Tell me something, what were you learning in all those books? Looking for way to get in touch with those Witches? Looking for a weakness so they could break you out?” He chuckled in a low, dangerous voice.

Moss strained to look down at the man holding the knife. A mottled face with a weak chin stared back at him with feral intensity. Suddenly its stare broke and shifted to the spot on the floor where Irridis had gone down.

The rat man pulled the knife away and Moss felt warm blood spurt onto his neck. Still gripping Moss, the inmate turned to look at the scene that had distracted his partner. Irridis was standing, head bowed, with the giant hoist wheel turning slowly behind him. His hands were clasped in front of him. The man with red braids lay at his feet with blood flowing from holes in his flesh. Moss and his assailants had turned just in time to see the glass disks from Irridis’s collar reach the end of their flight and loop back to settle into position. “Fuck,” said the rat man as he pushed Moss aside. “Bastard.” He lunged across the room at Irridis, and abruptly stopped. He turned toward the convict with a look of disbelief. As he fell to his knees he tried to staunch the blood coming from several exit wounds in his head. Moss heard a hornet-like buzz as the glass disks whipped past his face. The convict wasted no time to see if the other man was going to survive. He slammed through the glass door and vanished into the rain.

The room was quiet except for the wheezing of the man now kneeling on the ground. Moss crouched beside the body of the braided man and checked his pulse. Nothing. He looked up and saw that Irridis was already some what from the terminal. Moss rose and ran after him. He shouted for Irridis to stop.

“Thank you,” Moss said. “You saved my life. Again.”

The other put a gloved hand on Moss’s shoulder. “Remember that,” he said.