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 Seven. To read past chapters, click here. – The Editors
Chapter Seven: Poisonous Flowers
At dawn, Moss saw three women dropping loads of crumbling asbestos into the sea. They did not appear to notice as Moss and Irridis approached them. On the strand the hulking remains of a great ship loomed in the fog, covered in the oxyacetylene scribbles of the shipbreaker’s dissection. The two men skirted a fire pit where insulation from coils of copper wire burned, producing a foul smoke and filling the air with sparks. Men in blankets stood at the edge of the pits, staring at the flames, consuming an early meal of salted fish and tea. Moss avoided their eyes. He was well aware that outsiders were unwelcome in the closed culture of the ship-breaking yards.
Jellyfish bobbed like bled-out entrails in a surf that was rainbow hued and reeked of gasoline. As the women washed, splashing their arms and bellies, they chanted in voices that rose and fell with the gentle rhythm of the waves. Water streamed from one woman’s hair as she straightened her body. She braided the dark strands with stained fingers. Her face was lit by the dawn. Pale irises gave away her blindness, even from a distance.
With a gesture of his hand Moss indicated to Irridis that they should approach the women. As they came within shouting distance, a deafening concussion echoed across the water. Moss looked back at the derelict ship. Smoke, white at first, then black, billowed from a narrow doorway. He watched for several minutes until it diminished. An agitated babble of disembodied voices could be heard, but no activity was visible.
During the distraction, the women had climbed out of the water and begun the walk toward a haphazard collection of buildings that comprised the edge of their town. Moss and Irridis followed, hesitating when the women fell into single file along a path. They watched, keeping their distance until the last one vanished behind a section of ship plating that had been pressed into service as a wall. The they took to the path themselves. Moss drew his face into the crook of his arm, preparing for the smell of excrement and decay mixed with the reek of petroleum distillates. It burned in his sinuses even through the thickness of his greatcoat.
As they reached the edge of the town, the narrow alley of board and metal that lay in front of them was not promising. In several placed he saw sheets of flaking asbestos shoring up an unsteady wall, the spoils of a desperate industry. Silent figures, in the last throes of a disease Moss had become too familiar with during his youth, swayed in doorways, their chests concave.
“There,” said Moss. In spite of the treacherous surroundings, he managed to keep them on track.
“You must have been here before,” said Irridis.
“I was born here.”
The alley opened into a lane full of dilapidated houses. At the end was a two-story house with hurricane shutters fastened over the windows. Slates were missing and the line of the roof was sunken in the middle. A tall chimney was topped with a large stork’s-nest. To Moss, who was tired and wary, the facade of the house looked like a yawning face, the eyes and mouth formed by two rectangular windows on the upper floor and the arched entrance on the main level. The front garden was a depressing square of sea grass, surrounded by a wrought-iron fence. It looked more like a funeral plot than a yard. Irridis looked back at Moss.
“You are looking at the birthplace of Lumsden Moss,” Moss said dryly. “Hurry. They’ll close the door and pretend not to know us if we loiter and risk attracting attention.”
“Do you think they are aware we are following them?” asked Irridis.
“No question,” said Moss.
They quickened their pace and within moments arrived at an open door. Irridis paused at the threshold to listen, but Moss brushed past him.
“Quickly,” Moss whispered. He struggled to adjust his eyes to the interior while leading his companion down a mildewed hall. Tattered paper hung from the ceiling and walls. Sections of plaster had given way to expose the laths below.
At the end of the hall they stepped into a large room filled with ornate furniture that was worn and shabby. The air smelled like stale marijuana. The blind woman from the shipyard sat at a large dining table, which was clear except for a candle holder made from a block of salt. It held five white candles. The chair she sat in was indigo velvet. An oval mirror with a frame of chipped, gilt plaster filled the wall behind it. Her long arms, covered in gold bands, lay on the faded arm cushions. The woman’s two companions sat at either side. One idly shuffled a deck of tarot cards while the other peeled a pomegranate with a knife.
Moss sat opposite the women. Irridis chose to stand in the shadows with his hands folded in front of him, apparently prepared for anything. Moss would have preferred him to seem less menacing. The atmosphere in the room was charged in spite of the sister’s affected demeanour of calm.
“Hello Rosamond,” said Moss. “Flora; Iris. You look well.”
The blind woman spoke. “We look like shit, just like everyone else here, Lumsden. The flower dies in the bud in the shipyards, or have you forgotten. It’s cruel to make fun so.” She moved her hand below her nose as if wafting away an unpleasant smell. “Why are you here? We are not happy to see you. You know it sets tongues wagging when outsiders come around. I’d appreciate it if you would remember that we have to live in this community after you, and that thing, are gone.”
“And you with your reputation to consider,” said Irridis. “What could we have been thinking.”
Moss glanced at Irridis and then returned his gaze to Rosamond. “We will be gone soon enough, and we’ll be discrete so that we are not seen, I promise.”
The woman snorted. She was playing with the ends of her long black braids. She pointed the tip of a braid at Irridis. “Who’s your friend? Does he have a name?” Her pale eyes turned toward him as though they could see, but the pupils were frozen pinpricks. Moss knew that even though she could not see, Rosamond was hyper-alert to the movements in the room, that she had the acuity of a wild animal.
Moss turned again to his companion. “Irridis, I’d like to introduce you to Rosamond, Flora and Iris. Ladies, Mr. Irridis. He came with me from Brickscold Prison.
“Interesting,” said Rosamond, “how these things happen.”
The woman with the tarot cards laid the fool card on the table with a soft slap.
“Well, he can’t stay here,” said Rosamond. “What would the neighbours think?” All three sisters giggled.
“We’re not here to stay,” said Moss.
“There is no money either.”
“We haven’t come here looking for money.”
Rosamond smiled. “Well, we’ve ruled out the obvious. So what is it?”
“I am looking for the A.I.-Link,” Moss said.
Rosamond laughed. “Nobody has seen the mechanical kid since the murders. What makes you think you could possibly find it now? It’s probably at the bottom of a crevasse, smashed to pieces. Leave the past in the past, Lumsden — the future is crowded enough without you forcing ghosts on us.”
“The mechanical child,” said Irridis. “Where did it come from?”
Rosamond turned her head in his direction. “Salvage. It was found in wreckage in shallow water off Absentia. I still remember when it was brought here for us to look after.” She took a deep breath. “Bring it to the sisters, they said. The sisters will know what to make of it. Of course, everyone had to see it — the automaton that acted like a normal child. It was really quite remarkable — but of course, like everything else, people soon tired of it.”
Moss continued. “So they brought it to the school where I was a young teacher. The reaction there was the same. It was a sensation, and everyone thought it would be a brilliant idea for it to sit in the class like a real kid.” Moss rapped his knuckles on the table. “Except the other kids were terrified of it. They thought it was uncanny.”
“They wouldn’t let it alone,” said Rosamond.
“It scared them.” Moss’s voice rose. “It never should have been brought to the school.”
“It was the same school that accepted you,” said Rosamond. “You — the young, inexperienced teacher who allowed a child to drown in his care two years earlier.” She shook her head. “Oh, the scandal.”
“That was different,” said Moss. “It was an accident — I wasn’t even in the area when it happened.”
“Was it different? They accepted you, and then it happened again. Five children this time, Mr. Irridis. Five little lives.”
Moss fell silent. The taunting voice of his sister hung in the air. Life, he thought, is a series of nested prisons. Escape one, and emerge into another. He put his clasped hands on the table. It was the same spot he’d eaten his meals as a boy.
“I need to track it down and destroy it,” he said. “It’s the only way I can avenge them. For years I haven’t been able to think about anything else.” He cleared his thickening throat. “So I am going to ask you simply: Do you know where it is? Did it ever contact you, after? You three were the closest thing it had to a… mother.”
Iris, laying her tarot cards in a pattern on the table, spoke. “The thinking machine? I would have thought that such a thing would be difficult to hide. If it did manage to survive the winter in the wilderness, it would be well known, surely.” She didn’t take her eyes from the cards, and her voice had a mocking tone. Like her sisters, she was thin and light-complexioned, with hair that fell in strands and knots to her hips. Her lower lip was pierced in the middle with a silver ring that caught the light as she spoke.
Flora laughed quietly to herself as she burst pomegranate seeds with the flat of a knife.
“Is it so impossible that it might have survived?” said Iris. “It was quite resourceful, Flora.”
“Imagine,” Flora snickered. Iris laid another card on the table.
“Very resourceful, perhaps even crafty,” said Rosamond, with a mirthless smile. Moss looked from one to the other, sensing a subtext, a conversation of gestures and glances.
“I’ll tell you what, Lumsden,” said Iris, looking up from her cards. “I know you’ll have been to see Buttons. Maybe she gave you something. If you lay something on each one of these cards, we’ll see how good our intuition is today.” Her open hand gestured at a cross that was comprised of seven cards.
Irridis’s floating collar stopped its clockwise motion and began to move in the opposite direction. Moss reached into his satchel and produced the wooden pencil box Buttons had given him. “Three cards,” he said, “is the best I can do.”
The sisters leaned forward in their chairs as Moss placed the buttons slowly and deliberately on the first two tarot cards. The third, he held to the candlelight. It was heavier than he expected. The light came through the stitched spider, revealing an abdomen filled with milky fluid. The spider, which had previously appeared dead and desiccated, now seemed pliable, perhaps even alive.
Suddenly the button was snatched from his fingers.
Flora, her fingers stained red from the pomegranate seeds, pinched the button in front of her eyes. There was a hiss, and the spider emitted a cold glow. She cupped her hands over her face, and the light could be seen pulsating through the spaces between her fingers. She sighed and slumped back in her chair. The button had turned to white ash. The same ash was smeared across her chin and nose.
“Well, she’ll be quiet for a while anyway,” said Rosamond with a sigh. Moss looked back at the table. The two other buttons had been removed, and Iris was carefully wrapping her deck of cars in a piece of black silk.
Moss sat on the edge of his chair. “Do you know, now, where we might find the A.I.-Link?”
“There is a possibility that you might find what you want at the Chimneys,” said Rosamond.
“The Chimneys?” asked Moss. “You actually think it would still be near the school.”
“That is far to the north. It is a very desolate region. This is where your school was?” asked Irridis.
“You must travel north soon,” said Rosamond. “There will be a lot of storms in a few weeks.”
Moss rose and pushed his chair back to the table. “What will I find there sister?”
“How should I know — bad memories, probably. He had a name, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” said Moss.
“We called him Starling,” Rosamond said, “because we wanted him to be like a bird in a flock, same as the others.”
Moss turned to Irridis and gestured with his hand that it was time to leave. He turned away from the table. There was no word of goodbye from the sisters as they left the room and exited the house through the same door they had entered.
In the meagre yard Irridis turned to Moss. “Rosamond’s eyes?” he began.
“Ruined from addiction.”
“What are they — the buttons you gave them?”
“They are highly addictive — a hallucinogen, and insanely potent one. At a marginally higher does it’s deadly poison. The chemicals in the spiders spinnerets activate the compounds in the seed combination. When they intermingle, well, it’s really at the outer edge of what human’s can take.” Moss looked away from Irridis. “The triplets got addicted after they found boxes of them in Button’s workshop. It’s almost like then can smell the buttons from a mile away. Buttons won’t let them anywhere near the house and never comes here. I think she feels responsible.”
“Then it must have taken a lot for her to make them for you, knowing what you intended them for,” said Irridis.
“Yes”, was all he said.
When they turned for a last look at the house, Moss and Irridis saw a brief blue light fill the spaces in the hurricane shutters at the top of the house. It faded to darkness.
Irridis put a hand on Moss’s shoulder. They walked through the town, passing through alternating bands of blue shadow and weak sunlight. Anxious thoughts returned to Moss. He was about to embark on a journey into his past, to seek atonement for an event that had haunted him for most of his adult life. He was not sure he wanted a witness. Once again he contemplated leaving Irridis to whatever business he had in the city, and then vanishing from the City of Steps. He doubted Irridis would follow if he slipped away, but he realized that the only decent course of action was to simply tell Irridis that they must part. He vowed to do it as soon as the opportunity presented itself.