The Lost Machine: Chapter Nine

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

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Chapter Nine: The Institute

The two men made their way across a plain of shifting gravel left by retreating glaciers in millennia past. In Moss’s exhaustion he could almost believe the loose gravel had been put there simply to make him miserable. The sound behind them was black and full of ice which rose and fell with thunderous reports. They had walked due north since breaking camp. After three hours they had come across the freeze-dried remains of a whale. It lay among dark rocks, bones poking through its skin, which was like white plastic. Irridis wondered aloud how the whale had gotten so far inland, but neither man had a plausible answer and they moved on with a shrug. Irridis had not changed his clothing during the week-long journey by sea. It was salt-stained and ragged. Moss had procured a heavier coat from a sailor, as well as thick black goggles that were not unlike the ones worn by his companion. They were necessary to mitigate the unceasing glare of the ice and sky. Both men carried light packs on their backs, having cached the heavier gear at the base camp.

The plain of stones eventually gave way to a tussock and muskeg landscape filled with treacherous bogs. The travellers found a path in the lee of a granite ridge. It was somewhat warmer there, with the worst of the ceaseless wind blocked. There was even vegetation of a type, squat and knotted but nevertheless welcome for its greenness. The ground underfoot threatened to suck the boots off their feet with every step. Lichen covered almost everything, including patches of weathered bones, this time belonging to walrus and seals.

“They must have been caught here when the water levels dropped,” said Moss. Irridis nodded, contemplative, as always.

“Maybe we should rest.”

“No,” said Moss. “I recognize this area – I am certain that the Chimneys Institute is beyond the next rise in the land. According to my memory, this was once all under water. The shore used to be over that moraine to the west.”

They continued on, Irridis at times walking quite far behind, a lonely black figure. After the attack, he had insisted on coming on the journey to watch Moss’s back. Moss surprised himself by assenting. The pack on his back was growing heavy. The satchel with the exercise books had been tied to it with a leather strap. Hidden inside the pack was a handgun that he had secretly removed from the body of the dead rat man. Although the remote school had been abandoned after the murders, the dead city of Absentia lay to the north. He was wary of encounters, and it felt good to have some extra insurance.

The moraine was another shifting slope of stones. They reached the top, out of breath and thirsty, and found a view that could not have been more different that what they had just come through. The landscape beyond the mound spread out as a vista of wooded hills undulating into the distance where they bled into a blue horizon.

The Chimneys Institute had deteriorated considerably since Moss had last seen it. Once an architectural curiosity, massive and ornate, standing alone in the wilds, it was now ruinous. Around its foundations and in its eaves, trees and grasses had taken root, splitting stone and separating iron from brick. Most of the windows were gaping holes, and where the glass remained it was opaque and green. The distinctive gabled rooflines, and the numerous chimneys that gave the school its name, miraculously remained intact. That it stood at all was a testament to the builders of three hundred years past. Thousands of black birds, probably in migration to the south, rested on the roof. They rose in an enormous flock and wheeled around the institute in a shape  shifting cloud, before settling back on the roof and surrounding trees.

When Moss had taught natural history at the institute, he had – like all of the instructors – lived on the fourth floor. His room had been a lofty space with mullioned windows and oak floors. In the summer it had been insufferably hot, and he was more often than not driven into the wide windowsill, where he could read and smoke while enjoying the breeze and the view across the surrounding landscape. In the winter, in spite of the gargantuan gravity furnace in the cellars, the fourth floor was frigid and he read beneath mounds of heavy blankets. Moss had cherished his position at the institute. All day long he would listen patiently to the ceaseless complaining of the other instructors, and then he would run to his rooms grinning at the prospect of an evening of reading, cigarettes and red wine. It was hard work, but it had been more fulfilling than he had imagined. From his vantage point on top of the moraine, the decrepitude of the old building filled him with sadness. Through a trick of the elevation, he seemed to be directly across from the window where he had spent so many hours with endless stacks of books procured from the school library.

“I can’t see a soul,” said Moss.

Irridis took a telescope from his pack and surveyed the building and the surrounding grounds. When he was done, he handed it to Moss, who did the same. He looked into the windows at each level.

“The library must have been ransacked at some point. I can still see books but they are scattered. It looks like the place was simply abandoned,” he mumbled. “There is still furniture in the solarium at the end of the building, and a lot of the glass is still in place. Do you know, because this place is so remote, it was like a ship at sea? We had our own doctor, a surgeon actually. He used the daylight to perform surgeries on occasion. That’s where I got my appendix removed.” Moss straightened his back and snapped the telescope shut. He gave it back to Irridis. “Let’s have a look, shall we? If the floor hasn’t rotted out, we can camp there tonight.”

Getting to the Institute proved to be more difficult than it appeared. The surrounding woodlands had grown unchecked since the building was abandoned. A dense understory of brush formed a protective barrier around the building. Moss and Irridis fought branches and fallen trees for an hour before they finally came to a road leading toward the front of the building. Even the road was heaved, and split by roots, but it was still much easier going.

As he walked, Moss scanned the grounds for familiar landmarks. They came across the collapsed remains of a long greenhouse. The trees inside had long since burst through the top and seeded themselves on the outside. Behind the greenhouse lay the remains of the apiary. Irridis put his head to one of the rotted hives.

“I can hear bees. It’s still alive,” he said.

For Moss, poignant reminders of the past came in the form of small things. A cluster of lead soldiers lay on the road; a doll’s face could be seen in the dirt where the pavement had been thrust up by the frost. By every indication, the school had not been visited in ages. During the journey, Moss had put all his hopes into finding Starling at the school, though the idea of the mechanical boy hiding there seemed more ludicrous with each passing moment. They had almost reached the wide front steps of the Institute when Irridis stopped and turned. Moss looked at him and then followed his eyes back along the road.

“What’s the matter?”

“I think we are being followed.”

Moss scanned the brush. “I don’t see anything.”

“Neither did I, but I did hear something,” said Irridis.

“A bird?”

“I don’t know,” said Irridis, “something.” They moved off the road and stepped into the undergrowth where a fallen tree had made an opening. Moss loosened the straps on his pack and felt for his gun. He had left it concealed but easily accessible should the need arise.

Minutes passed, and the only noises were the clatter and rub of branches when the wind gusted, and the calls of the birds they had seen earlier. Moss was getting restless when Irridis touched his shoulder and pointed down the road. A fox trotted along the centre line, then veered left. They watched, bemused, as it smelled where they had been walking and then marked the spot.

“I guess we are the invaders here,” said Moss.

“Yes,” said Irridis. He was still looking down the road when the fox vanished into the greenhouse.

The wide front of the Institute was designed to look formidable. Wide steps flanked by stone griffons led up to twin oak doors. Moss tried the handles and found them securely locked.

“Incredible,” he said. He shook the brass knobs but the doors remained still. “These doors will be standing when the rest of this place has fallen to pieces.”

“Let’s try the back,” said Irridis.

Moss nodded. “Good idea. There is a back entrance that leads to the servant’s quarters and the kitchen.”

Moss found a trail through the vegetation around the side of the building. At times they had to force their way through thick vines, as well as furniture, which looked as though it had been thrown from the upper windows some years before. Moss was attempting to leap a large chair when he spotted something that he had forgotten existed – a small cemetery.

“Over there,” he said. They climbed through a patch of ivy to reach the iron fence that still surrounded the graves. The gate was open, so they entered. Several limestone grave markers leaned against the fence, their inscriptions all but weathered away. A mottled angel, part of the cenotaph commemorating students from the school who had died in the Battle of Absentia, dominated the cemetery. Her broken wings lay half buried in the grass. Some distance behind the angel, a group of trees obscured a mausoleum. It was small, with little ornamentation beyond a stained glass window in the door. Its darkened limestone was filled with tiny bivalve fossils.

Moss immediately had a sense of foreboding about the mausoleum. It was much newer than the other memorials. He threaded his way between the headstones until he stood before the three steps leading up to the door.

“I’m going inside,” said Moss. Irridis nodded that he understood, and left Moss to climb the steps alone.

The door pushed open to reveal a small room with a marble floor. He stepped in and closed the door behind him. The stillness was profound, amplifying the sound of his breathing. One the wall were ten small doors. Five of them had brass plates affixed, with names inscribed in a decorative script. Moss did not need to read them. The names were Standard Justner, Jennifer Cooke, David Godwin, Stokes Hutchison and Annabelle Fish.

He touched each plate, tracing the name with his finger, knowing their bones lay on the other side of the stone slab. There was nothing he could do for them. Not then, not now. Other than his memories, all that remained were these brass markers. It made the early end to their lives all the more tragic. Moss pressed his forehead to the marble wall until it hurt. The door to the mausoleum opened and Irridis was about to enter.

“Don’t come in here,” Moss shouted. He turned away from the dead children’s grave and left. Irridis waited several feet away, as still as one of the tombstones, with the grass blowing around his legs. Moss pulled the door shut. “Lets go find Starling,” he said, striding past. “Rosamond knew something when she sent me here.”

 

A wide doorway at the rear of the building led into a room filled with riding tackle. They passed the racks of cracked leather and tarnished metal and entered a servants’ hall. Moss led them through a maze of workshops, kitchens and storage areas, and eventually into a series of broader passages. He took them up a servants’ staircase and came out on the second floor, steps away from the library. Unlike the lower level, which was claustrophobic and ill-lit, the library was filled with daylight, which entered through high multi-paned windows. Much of the glass was missing, but the former grandeur of the room could still be felt. Even though the carpets had long since rotted, they retained some of their fantastical designs. Raccoon droppings littered the once-beautiful oak floors, which were still firm and and strong beneath the men’s feet. The library tables were covered with dust. Surprisingly, much of the library collection was intact, albeit water-damaged. Many volumes were strewn about the library, however their pages little more than a matrix for various kinds of mould or thread-like masses of root. Birds flew with impunity in and out of the window openings.

Moss walked over to a high wall of books. “I used to spend hours here. I always preferred the worlds within this room to the one out there. I’d bring the children here to study the animals and plants in the biology collection. Sometimes, I would read to them, adventure stories. They used to love those stories.”

“What about Starling? Did he enjoy the stories?” asked Irridis as he drew idle lines in the dust on the table.

“I don’t know,” Moss said. “He rarely spoke, and when he did the others made fun of him. I tried to stop it but there was a fine line. I just prayed he would defend himself.” Moss walked across the room toward a large hearth filled with rusted andirons. He set his pack on the hearth and unfastened the straps on the satchel. From the depths of his coat, he removed the box of matches that he had taken from the hut in the forest.

“What are you doing?” asked Irridis, coming up behind him.

“It’s time for me to say goodbye,” Moss said.

He gathered paper from the floor of the library and built a pile at the centre of the andirons, then lit it on fire. It burned slowly at first, because of the paper’s dampness, but gradually gained strength. As it grew he fed it sticks and leaves. Once he was satisfied that it would not die, he turned and opened the satchel and pulled the children’s exercise books onto his lap.

One by one, he gently fed them to the fire. He waited until each one had been fully consumed before adding the next.

Finally, he was left with a single book. Its blue cover was faded. The staples were rusted. He looked at the name printed on the cover. Starling. He thought of how he pitied the mechanical boy. Alone, aware that he was different, and in all ways ignorant of the world he found himself in. Moss had tried to teach him, but there were things the boy simply would not, or could not, learn. He seemed more interested in the hatching of a chrysalis or the movements of fish in an aquarium then geometry or philosophy. In some ways this shook Moss’s confidence in what he was teaching. Was what he had to teach Starling important? In the end, did it matter where the boy’s understanding of the world came from? It was easy to dislike the way Starling made him feel – and sometimes, in spite of his pity, he let the bullying go on for longer than he should have.

Moss fed the last exercise book to the flames. The blue cover curled backward and blackened. The pages began to smoke and then burst into flame. Something inside the fire shifted and the coals settled, sending sparks up the chimney. Both men watched as the fire slowly consumed itself. Neither heard the footsteps coming across the floor.

“Hello boys!”

Moss and Irridis whirled around. The convict stood in the middle of the floor. In his left hand was a wine bottle with a burning rag stuck in the top. Black smoke streamed from the flames. “Damn, you fellows are hard to keep up with.” He waved the bottle wildly in the air. “But no more, motherfucker. Your wandering days are over.”

Before either Moss or Irridis could react, the convict hurled the bottle at them. It went wide of the mark and struck the stone mantlepiece beside Irridis, exploding into a fireball. Moss dove into the enormous hearth, falling heavily on his shoulder but avoiding the blast. He turned to see Irridis engulfed in fire.

‘No!” Moss screamed.

Irridis was silent and unmoving as the flames roared around his body. He stared at his attacker as the cloth around him unraveled and flew upward in the wind of the inferno. Burning cloth floated through the air, landing in stacks of books and maps.

Moss was paralyzed as Irridis’s blackened form emerged from the ashes of his clothing. His body was slender and smooth, glistening beneath the soot like the skin of a dolphin.

All around them the library was beginning to burn. Flying sparks ignited the carpets and drapes. Stacks of books, splattered with kerosene, began to burn and then howl as the fire accelerated, pulling oxygen through cracks in the wooden shelves. Moss made a low inarticulate sound at the sight of Irridis falling to his knees. Careless of being burned himself, Moss rushed forward. His hand burned against the other’s smoking body. Moss helped him twist onto his back, then settled onto his heels. Wild green eyes looked up at him. Moss’s breath caught in his chest. Suddenly he felt an uncontrollable anger overcome him.

Soot from the kerosene and the burning cloth was smeared across Irridis’s face. Stripped of its coverings, the contours of his features could only be described as beautiful. His lips were smooth and defined by a delicate ridge. The nose was narrow and straight. The face was neither wholly male nor wholly female but rather a blend of both. Fire had blackened the skin, but the smoky film could not hide its translucence and the nacreous fluids, tubes and circuitry in the clouded depths of Starling’s head. For it was unmistakably Starling – somehow grown, through what process Moss could not imagine. The green eyes, which still regarded Moss, reflected like green-tinted mirrors.

“How could you?” Moss shouted. Tears rolled down his face as he frantically searched the ground. His hands found a loose piece of masonry which he hoisted above his head.  The flames roared around them with the noise of a hurricane. Moss’s voice sounded like a drum in his head, and Starling’s weak protests were inaudible. Moss was insane with rage – at the deaths of his students, at the loss of his life to the prison and at the deception his companion had wrought. He brought the masonry down on Irridis’s head again and again until, with the smoke burning his lungs like acid, he fell to the side, spent. Starling lay unmoving. His eyes were shut and opaline fluid sprayed in a fine mist through cracks that Moss had opened in his face.

Moss staggered to his feet and ran from the library with his clothes smoking. The library was now completely on fire, with flames spreading to adjacent rooms through the cavities in the walls and the spaces beneath the ancient wooden floors.

As Moss ran through the room filled with riding equipment, he nearly tripped over the prone form of the convict. The man’s flesh was riddled with a type of wound that Moss had now become very familiar with. Even as Irridis burned, the glass disks had found and killed his assailant.

A deafening crash came from the floor above, and the entire building shook. Dust filled the air from fissures in the ceiling. Moss ran blindly for the narrow door to the outside and did not stop until he lay insensible on the steps of the mausoleum, with acrid smoke rising from his clothes.