Rain streaming down the windows, pattering from concrete pavements, flowing down clogged gutters. Figures hurrying with heads bowed, coats pulled tight, cursing the fact that they'd ever been born. The rest...those with nowhere to go; no destination or hope of shelter, shivered where they sat, huddled in alleyways, against boarded up store-fronts, not looking to those who passed for any pity; knowing better, most of them having been amongst the walkers, once.
“Floods across the country, apparently.”
Increasingly empty suburbs. Entire neighbourhoods of vacant houses, “for sale” or “for rent” signs faded, smeared with dirt and growth. Many abandoned; windows smashed, blacked out, boarded over, ceilings collapsed, doors hanging off their hinges.
A familiar sight, these days.
“So I understand.”
An implication, hanging in the air, making it silently seethe.
“Some are saying it's...unnatural.”
Dumolo turned away from the window, eyes moving over Esther's features as she drove. How long had it been, now? Ten years, twenty? So easy to lose count.
He smiled, sighing. “They might be right.”
Faint whisperings and intimations... some new Art? Some weapon? The phenomena certainly baffling the experts (at least publicly; those paraded on television or quoted in news paper articles expressing hypotheses that ran from some unanticipated effect of climate change to one produced by the recent spate of quantum experiments occurring at CERN and similar facilities throughout the world). For his part, Dumolo considered it irrelevant, at least until such time as it revealed itself pertinent to their business.
“I used to love the rain.”
A strange pronouncement, one that raised the hairs on his arms and neck. There'd no doubt been much that they'd both loved. None of it mattered, now.
“We're almost there. Are you ready?”
No answer. An idiot question. Of course she was ready; she'd been so since the moment of her severance, as they all had.
“Alexia Martin...has she had any contact?”
“Not that we know of. Likely a spontaneous case.”
A flicker, passing across her features like a ripple across a still pond; the breath of a storm. A moment only, familiar stasis returning in a heartbeat.
“I'm sorry. I've been thinking about them, lately.”
Ah, the children. Her demons; what made her simultaneously so perfect and so...problematic in her current role.
“I can't remember their names, their faces...”
Suburban streets; regular, red brick houses, punctuated by the odd older town house, situated further back from the road. Hardly anyone; no dog walkers, no runners; no roving packs of youths sharing cigarettes and cheap cider.
“That's as it should be.”
“I know, but... I think of them. I can't help it. I wonder...what it must be like, for this girl, for those like her...”
Dumolo reached across, a hand on her shoulder. Spontaneous; a strange gesture of comfort, that he instantly found himself puzzling over, the emotion that drove it dimming almost the instant it flared.
“That's good; that pity. It helps you to see them for what they are; why we do this. I...”
I envy you.
The Father, Caleb Martin, was waiting when they arrived, standing inside the open entrance of the council terrace that, until recently, he'd shared with his wife, his daughter.
Stepping out of the car, Dumolo looked up into the rain, its chill spattering his features, running down beneath the neck of his shirt and jacket. No sign...nothing that he could see or taste that the phenomena was fuelled by Art; a product of stray inspirations. Only churning cloud, tumescent, black as the skin of overripe fruit, pellucid sunlight seeping through rents and ruptures in its underbelly.
He sensed it the instant he stepped out of the car; an irritation, like the whine of a dentist's drill, electronics on the verge of burning out; agitation in the air, as though it were filled with invisible, swarming insects, settling on his face and fingers to bite.
There. The bedroom window above the entrance, curtains drawn, sealed against the rain, but not sufficiently to contain what lay within.
“Mr. Martin? My name is Dumolo, this is my partner, Esther. We spoke on the phone, I believe?”
A familiar face; the same they all wore; pale and slack, as though about to slough from the bone beneath, eyes dark and sunken from lack of sleep, wet with worry. A cigarette between the man's fingers, trembling.
“You can help her? My Alex?”
“We believe so. May we come in?”
An interior that smelled of dust and stale bread; clearly not having been cleaned or tidied in some time. Martin led them through to the living room, clearing a space on the sofa, which was piled high with discarded laundry.
Stubbing out his cigarette, he stood before them, pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, as though struggling with the fact of their presence.
Esther spoke, so much better at this part than him:
“It's all right, Mr. Martin; please, take your time. And don't be afraid; we have...extensive experience with this sort of case.”
A crooked smile, an eyebrow rising. “You do? This...happens a lot, does it?”
“More so than you'd imagine. When did all this begin?”
“Have you spoken to Shirley?”
The girl's Mother, left in the night some months back, taking their youngest, a nine month old boy by the name of Ben, with her.
“We...attempted to find her. No luck, I'm afraid.”
A snarl, tears welling. “No, nor the police, either. I've lost them...”
He pressed a hand to his eyes, sobbing quietly for almost a minute. They allowed him that moment; taking it to assess the situation.
The house was rank with it; stray inspiration, the irritation they'd experienced outside now waxed to painful degrees; a drill boring through their skulls, ragged blades scraping across bone. All around; echoes of it; the expressions that had moved Martin to seek their help. Dumolo saw, albeit vaguely; the girl who was the source of disturbance; tall, for her age, wiry, like a ballet dancer, long hair almost reaching her waist, trailing down over her eyes. What some might have considered pretty, no doubt.
He saw her...sat cross legged on the carpet, fingers trailing through the air, leaving tinted ripples and distortions, as though in water or oil. Saw her convulsing in the chair opposite the television, her Mother screaming, scurrying away as she hurled her head back, vomiting strands of black matter that coiled and elaborated through the air, seeking out points on furniture and ceiling by which to anchor themselves and take root. Saw her naked and crawling, splayed out across the wall like a vast lizard or spider, the wallpaper melting, crawling at her touch, floral patterns taking on a semblance of faces; dancing and mating forms, before dissolving once more.
The Mother, Shirley, reaching for her daughter, scorched by blue fire that broke across the girl's skin, recoiling with a hiss more of betrayal than pain, fleeing from the room, from the house, taking the barely born brother with her.
“We'll do everything we can, for both of you.”
The man's eyes suddenly widened, clearing, as though seeing them for the first time.
“Who...who are you, anyway? How did you..?”
Dumolo inclined his head. “We are... in contact with local police forces and other agencies. You might say that these affairs are our...speciality.”
The man blinked, twitching.
“I can't...I can't...”
He seated himself, collapsing in an adjacent chair, burying his head in his hands. Dumolo turned to Esther. She barely nodded, barely blinked.
“Mr. Martin? Esther will help you, now. Do we have your consent?”
The man raised his face, unconcerned by the tears staining it.
“It's quite all right, Mr. Martin; just a standard procedure...something to help you cope.”
She'd already risen, going to him, kneeling on the carpet before him.
“Do we have your consent?”
The man hesitated for a moment, then nodded, his affirmation growing more furious by the second.
“Anything. Anything. Just...help us.”
Esther nodded, raising her hands, placing them to either side of Martin's head. The man didn't protest, hardly murmured. Like so many, likely sensing the relief that would follow. A faint pulse, a building sense of pressure in the room, a crackle of blue. The man convulsed in his chair, croaking.
Dumolo rose, leaving Esther to her business as he sought out the source of this household's suffering.
“Alexia? My name is Dumolo. Don't be afraid; I'm here to help you...”
Silence, though not one in which any peace might be found. He often found himself wondering how they endured it; the presence of something so diseased. The air rank with it; filled with invisible carrion flies, whispering and buzzing in his ears, at his lips. Subtle distortions; the landing seeming to swell and subtly shift around him, the carpet crawling as though with ash blown in a gentle breeze, with minute spiders hatching from the forest of its fibres.
The girl's bedroom door was shut, its lintel stretched, one corner massively distorted in comparison with the rest, a smeared photograph or child's painting. White wood, its grain flowing and rippling. Familiar disturbances; of a kind he'd encountered day in, day out since his own Severance. Since before, back when he himself had been a vector for them; sicker than the girl beyond would mercifully ever know.
“Alex? Your Father is very worried about you. I'm sure you're afraid. Please, let us...”
A sudden shuddering, the entire landing shaking around him as though in the throes of an earthquake. The spiders darted and scurried across the carpet, the floral patterns on the walls suddenly animated like those in the lounge below. The bedroom door softened, its distorted corner dissolving back into a semblance of its true state, another swelling out of true to replace it. From around the lintel seeped silvery vapour, a voice whispering on its coils:
Go away...go away...go away...
A child. Unlike Esther, he didn't regard his function with much sentiment; not having come to it as a result of family or for the sake of love. Even so, he couldn't deny a pang of pity for the girl. So young, as so many of them were, uncomprehending of the sickness that consumed them...so many of them in love with it, not realising the damage they did.
Reaching into his jacket, Dumolo produced a small device; a simple circle of metal, dulled as though with age, no markings or motifs apparent. The touch of it numbed his fingers; a pleasant sensation, though sadly not one that lasted. Pressing it to the door with his thumb, he sensed an immediate dissipation of the disturbances from beyond; its grain stilling, its dimensions slowly returning to some semblance of normality. Turning it clockwise, he heard the wood groan, as though under immense pressure, the vapour seething from around it hissing.
“I can't, Alex; I have to help you. It's why I'm here...”
The door abruptly clicked open, swinging inward. No blast or eruption, as he'd anticipated; no sudden surge of energies. Instead, he found himself peering into darkness, as though the girl's bedroom were a subterranean cavern or abandoned mine, walls of wet stone, ribbed and pitted, crawling with faintly luminous veins, as though the gold and silver they contained were molten, pumping like blood. Shapes in the darkness; swimming things, like fish or snakes beneath the surface of oily waters, barely suggestions of their bodies breaking surface. The device clattered to the ground, smoking and spent.
A miscalculation; sentiment clouding his judgement. Had they known that the sickness had taken this deep a hold, they'd have come better prepared.
Holding onto the lintel, he peered into the darkness, the things within seeming to dart and slither from beneath his gaze, as though pained by it. Stepping forward, he reached into the murk, his fingers disappearing into it as though it were liquid.
Pain, the stuff burning like acid, but he didn't pull away. Ripples ran out from where he touched, carrying silvery light, like the reflection of the moon. The things within swarmed upon him, lashing, biting, stinging; some reaching through, the darkness parting to emit jellyfish tendrils, segmented, bony limbs, their tips barbed, stinging blindly at the air. Yes, they'd underestimated, but he'd seen the like before, many times. Had shat and sweated similar, during the days of his own fever.
Reaching deeper, he closed his eyes, allowing himself to flow; his own veins opening, skin parting, what pulsed beneath bleeding out, polluting the darkness. The stuff began to bubble and evaporate, blistering before his eyes, the things within recoiling, attempting to retreat into its depths before the cleansing influence found them. With a wrench, he pulled himself free, taking a moment to assess the damage done to his arm. Skin blistered and sliced open; sloughing away in places, the musculature and tracery of veins beneath not of any pattern a surgeon or mortician would recognise. Blue-black fluid pulsed from the wounds, already solidifying, coaxing his skin to reknit itself.
The darkness receded down the tunnel, peeling back across the stone walls, until barely a curtain of it remained, flapping frayed around what it had been sewn to conceal.
The girl sat cross legged, head bowed, fingernails scratching at the ground. The air around her swarmed; things coalescing there, seeming to rise as smoke and vapour from her skin, from beneath her hair; her eyes and mouth, congealing in the darkness to take on shape and substance. Nightmares...what those who worshipped the disease never saw, or refused to acknowledge.
The girl shuddered, shaking her head, the things that previously infested the darkness clustering about her, battening upon her; burrowing into her back, her arms, her belly.
“They're nothing, Alex; nothing at all. Burn them; think of fire, think of light. Burn them.”
She shook her head, moaning, the things flailing about her, biting deeper, as though threatening the very host whose fever they depended on.
Dumolo approached, stepping into the tunnel, though the fact of it pained him. Vapour rose from where his feet met the ground, every brush of the tunnel wall against his shoulders or fingers eliciting spasms not only of pain, but of sympathetic sickness; memories of his own time in love with it; wandering insane and without clarity.
“Look at me. Your Father called us; we can help you...”
Her head abruptly snapped up, eyes blazing through a veil of matted hair.
Leave. Us. ALONE.
A sudden blast of air, what remained of the darkness crystallising, becoming jagged shards that flew on the gale, some finding their marks, lacerating his arms and legs, others flying wide, dispersing.
“You don't want to hurt me, I know you don't.”
Sobs, shudders, the parasites swarming across her, all but eclipsing her wasted frame. Dumolo focused, breathing deep and slow. Around him, the stone cracked and flaked away, the tunnel itself dissolving, leaving behind suggestions of the room it had been dreamed to eclipse.
“What...what are you doing? Don't...”
He reached out, brushing the tunnel wall with his fingers, dissolution spreading from every caress; cracks coruscating throughout, letting in pale light, the patter of rain.
“I can't help it, Alex, anymore than you can; this is what I do, what I dream of. The nightmares...we can stop them, for good. How does that sound?”
The girl's eyes flared, her breath coming quicker. “No...please. Go away...”
She started to scrabble back, but the dissolution had already gone too far; its cracks reaching behind her, into whatever depths she'd imagined, peeling them away, leaving them little more than ancient and flaking paint. As he drew closer, she convulsed, the things parasitically bound too and battened on her squirming, attempting to burrow deeper or peel themselves away, bursting open and spilling, crumbling to dust and smoke that curled away in the air.
Soon enough, there was little to mark they'd ever been; only a naked, weeping girl, clawing at her bedroom wall as though to burrow through it and hurl herself into the rain.
“Are you done?”
Esther rose from where she knelt, peeling her hands away from Martin's face. The man slumped, burbling nonsense, drooling over his shirt.
She nodded, standing, retrieving the instruments she'd utilised and stowing them away in her bag. He'd worked with others who'd completed the operation in less than half the time; treating it as no more consequential than lancing a boil or extracting a rotten tooth. Esther... hers were always longer, often to the chagrin of their superiors; she didn't merely leave them with some patchwork confusion; always taking time to repair the damage to their lives; leaving them with something to be happy for; something that might lend them meaning. Initially, he'd been sceptical of the efforts, regarding them as inefficient; a waste of time and resources, but the results spoke for themselves.
The girl followed as they made their way to the car, slumping and docile, eyes fluttering as though suspended somewhere between dreams and waking. Esther came after, ushering her into the back seat, strapping her in.
“Will you drive?”
He held up his arm for her perusal. A flicker of emotion? Concern? Of course...such was her nature; the foundation of her service to The Loom.
Easing into the driving seat, she assessed his wounds, her fingers moving over them, pressing and probing, the anaesthetic numbness that spread from every point of contact eliciting sighs of gratitude.
“She did this?”
“Her disease did this. She's further gone than we anticipated.”
Esther nodded, turning away, starting the car. It didn't need to be said; only one possibility; one chance for her to be whole again:
Some took a degree of pleasure in this...almost fetishised satisfaction. Not him; a necessary evil, one he felt obliged to witness, being its author.
Esther had done what she could for the girl, along the way. Sways and sutures; the devices they'd brought painfully inadequate. Even focused on the road as he was, the girl's sickness beat upon him like fever heat, filling the car with its stink, his skull with its symptoms.
Bad enough that he'd once suffered the same; to be reminded of the condition so acutely, to feel it, even vicariously...vile, his insides squirming, his skin unclean. Protocol demanded that he take Communion as soon as possible, to prevent possible contamination...he would, as soon as he was certain she had some peace.
“Esther is waiting.”
A silver mug, pressed into his hand. He accepted, swilling the mercurial liquid it contained from side to side. Unlike most, he'd never developed a taste for it, though he appreciated its properties.
Fleischer...a trace of the man's original German still lingering at the edge of his words, but a trace only. Drawing alongside Dumolo, he sipped from his own mug, eyes wandering over the scene beyond the glass.
“I know. This won't take long.”
The man nodded. Dumolo sipped from his own Neph, the stuff almost tasteless, faintly metallic at the back of his tongue. Chemical calmness; the ease of anaesthetic spreading through his body. Another sip and another, each bringing a greater degree of stillness, of clarity.
“More problematic than we anticipated, yes?”
The man gestured to the window, flickers of a smile at the corner of his lips. One of those whose company he'd once found irritating to the point of unbearable, when he still suffered from such weakness. Fleischer enjoyed his work; had never made a secret of it, a fact for which their superiors appreciated him. For his part, Dumolo found it distasteful; a distraction from duty.
Beyond the glass, the girl, Alexia, shuddering, straining against her bonds. So frail, now that the sickness swathing her had been peeled away, her adolescent body wasted to the point of malnutrition, criss crossed with scratches, old scars. Self harm; hardly uncommon amongst the Inspired, especially those with no framework for their condition. Esther had managed to keep her relatively docile until they arrived. Even so, the sickness had done everything its power to express itself, as was its nature, her croaks and convulsions hideous, what issued from her lips and eyes; from her quivering fingers, worse.
Traces of it played about her, even now, even here; the air around her shimmering, unsettled, filaments crawling and coruscating across her skin, threatening to burst the scars and scratches, have her spill out at the seams. She cried, murmured, calling out for her parents, for friends and companions she'd imagined, in her fits and fevers. Surgeons worked to pacify her, manipulating the machinery to which she was bound, subtly altering the quantities of chemicals it pumped into her system; pipes and tubes piercing her wrists, her temples, her spine...
This particular configuration he'd never seen before; an eruption from beneath the cell floor, a great throne upon which she sat, its needles and extrusions prodding, pressing her, paring away the matter that she breathed and sweated; that coalesced in the air about her. She strained; a rabid animal at the leash, willing to strangle itself for want of freedom.
“You need Communion...I can smell her stink on you.”
So could he; feel it worming over him, beneath his clothes; carrion seeking out cold flesh in which to make their nurseries.
“I know, and I'll take it, when I'm sure the assignment is done.”
Fleischer sighed through his nostrils, whatever else he had to say swallowed back.
The Surgeons began their work, the instruments that served them in place of fingers, that extruded from their swollen heads, moving over the girl, every lick, every caress, opening wounds, probing deeper, seeking out the very roots of the sickness she'd carried since her first cells coalesced. She sagged where she sat, shuddering at the violation, her screams growing muted, becoming little more than strangled whimpers.
Dumolo himself didn't remember...none of them did; the trauma equivalent to that of birth; something that sanity couldn't sustain, which it therefore simply ejected from memory. Even so, he couldn't suppress a pang of sympathy for the girl; a fleeting wish that there was another way.
Fleischer turned to him, one eyebrow raised.
Dumolo shook his head. “No, of course not. It's a mercy...”
Breathless gasps, the girl straining almost enough to tear her arms and legs from their sockets, for her skull to press through her stretched taught features. What the Surgeons pared from her manifested as it came free; coalescing in their fingers as worms of smoke and light, the flailing roots of some sentient cancer. Receptacles opened in the cell floor to receive it, funnelling the redundant matter away, to where Dumolo didn't know, his function not requiring such knowledge.
“No. It is a privilege. So many die not knowing this; their own purity, their purpose. What we give her now...it will be more than dreams could ever provide.”
He knew. Why else would he bring her here, to suffer this..? Perhaps she would be like him; one of the lucky ones that survived the process. So many didn't; minds and bodies surrendering under the strain, the sickness murdering its host rather than seeing it purged.
Even so, he knew first-hand how profoundly it distorted perception; how much in love with it they could be. She would hold on to the last; even when there was little left of it, of herself. He could help her; help her to see the wisdom of surrender...the joy it could bring...
“So many...do you think Isaac can cope with them?”
“Of course; it was what he was built for...”
A note of uncertainty, masked almost before he could detect it.
“Has there been any change? Has the Loom met..?”
The smile disintegrated, giving way to a faintly distasteful frown. “Would it make any difference if they did?”
As close as he'd come to dissent within these halls, or perhaps a subtle attempt to gage his own? Fleischer, like all of them, watched perpetually for signs of disturbance amongst their own; a factor not unheard of, but not something he'd ever encountered himself.
The Loom...how long had it been since they last met? Since anything filtered down from them but the same, automatic imperatives? In truth, he and others had come to regard them as little more than ceremonial fixtures; too distant, too divorced from the realities they faced every day to even begin to engage with them.
All except Hazelgarth, of course.
“Perhaps not. But they must be aware of the situation, surely..?”
Fleischer shrugged, draining the last of his Neph. “Perhaps they are, perhaps not. Most of them wouldn't care, either way.”
No longer dissent; outright blasphemy, though nothing that Dumolo himself hadn't thought, in his own private doubts. For Fleischer to give it voice...a certain sign that change was in the air, for good or ill.
Through the glass, the girl, Alexia, no longer straining, bloodied now, quivering as she wept, as the Surgeons probed deeper, beyond flesh, beyond bone, into more abstract anatomy...
The sickness surged in its own defence, her wounds suddenly gaping, black matter spooling from within. One of the Surgeons staggered back, the stuff coiling about her wrist, its touch causing her to blister.
No...no! Don't resist, please! Let it be...let it take you...
He'd hoped, prayed, that she wouldn't reach this crisis. Resisting the urge to enter the chamber, to go to her, calm and contain her, he watched as Isaac burrowed into her, the engine's hypodermics draining as they flooded her system with ink-like matter. The Surgeons recovered, the tendrils flailing at them sloughing away, growing insubstantial as smoke.
Fleischer heaved a heavy breath, having already decided how this would end, his lament for the girl written before she'd even ceased breathing.
Not without reason; both of them had seen this play out before, countless times, those that ended with anything more than the subject's death so few and far between, lodged like nails in memory's meat; a connection akin to that of parent and child, that Dumolo himself had known only once...the child calling for him now, though he declined to go to her.
The Surgeons scurried more urgently, coaxing devices to extend from the cell's walls, from the floor; limb-like protuberances that they directed with frantic motions of their bladed fingers over the girl's shifting anatomy. Little of her left, now; her body a pulsating mass, neither vapour nor flesh nor fluid; a thing of storms and bruises, of overripe fruit, on the verge of bursting. Her pain...she called for her Father, for the Mother who'd abandoned her. She called for God and Christ; any divinity that might hear. No answer; nothing save the whirring of instruments, the growl of engines.
Over so quickly, what bond might have existed between them; that he'd already begun to foster, giving way; a snap in his mind like the severing of an umbilical chord, the sudden give of a swelling tumour. The Surgeons backed away, the cell's machinery descending to contain her, something of the original girl momentarily surfacing from the conflux, features swollen and swimming, matter seeping from her wounds. Did she see? Did she sense him beyond the wall, the window? He might have reached for her, had he the means; were he still afflicted by the same disease. Nothing he could do; no comfort he could provide. She gave out with a sigh, sagging where she lay, her protean body coming apart, sluicing away from bones similarly agitated, the matter caught and siphoned away by various sluices and devices set around the chamber. Would part of her survive, would she wake to find herself assimilated into the machinery, granted at least a semblance of life, of purpose..? No; not even enough left for that. No waking; only emptiness, a waste of such potential.
Dumolo turned away, the corridor seething with activity. Opposite, those that had been more fortunate; forms taken during infancy, before they could begin to fruit -unwanted and abandoned; strays and street-born- stretched and yawned in exhaustion, the circuitry woven throughout their bodies pulsing, technicians moving to repair that which burst or sputtered. A familiar sight, these days; the state and the engine that sustained it driven almost to breaking point.
Fleischer's condolence chilling the air between them, muting the black fire behind his eyes. A hand on his shoulder, the numbness that flooded from it welcome.
“More peace than she's likely ever known.”
Truth, no less welcome for its coldness.
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George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.