Original Fiction: Roar Forth, Steer The Dead
Author: Captain Oblivious
Notes: So hey everybody, remember this? I finished it off for last semester's final creative writing assignment and then forgot about it. I thought maybe I would expand it but at this point it seems unlikely, so here it is! Title from this song.
Roar Forth, Steer The Dead
August 9th. There have been reports of a curious disturbance in the slums of this good city. A man, presumably the worse for wine, is said to have had a spontaneous fit of cannibalism and begun taking bites out of passers-by at random. This occurring just outside a notorious Den of Sin, it took some time for the City Militia to respond. The man was therefore subdued by bodyguards of the establishment, and delivered to the Guard frog-tied and foaming at the mouth.
Of course the foremost witnesses being Ladies of the Night one cannot be certain as to the veracity of such tales, but this may be a unique opportunitie to observe first hand a case from my field of study occurring in Civilised realms, which suggests that the practice is not unique to Savages and remote island-bound tribes. This will set the Academy in a tizzy! I shall venture down to the Fifth Precinct Constabulary first thing tomorrow morning with my Instruments of Science and make use of my contact there to gain an interview with the Subject. There is no time to waste for the Crown Prince arrives on tomorrow's incoming Zeppelin to attend the Royal Engineering and Machinecraft Conference two evenings hence, and I cannot be less than prepared should he request a report.
(The above being the final entry in the Journal of Sir Thomas Boyd, Doctor of Natural Philosophy, Alchemy and Anthropology, found at his residence some few miles outside _________. -ed)
I was let into the cells by my friend Hastings, a nervous young man whom I had cured of an unfortunate childhood lisp some years ago. He left me there and returned to his duty, promising to inform me if any information on the case came in. The subject was bound hand and foot, and some unlucky guard had clearly attempted to gag him as the rag hanging haphazard about his neck was speckled with fresh blood. I placed my instrument case at a safe distance from the man and began to examine him.
The first thing I noted was his pallor of skin and unfocused, dilated pupils. I attemped to draw blood in order to chemically test for various substances that might be held responsible for his state, but I had tremendous difficulty finding a vein and the blood, when targeted accurately, came sluggish and nearly black in colour. I attempted to feel a pulse but could not find one in his wrist, and dared not approach the neck for whenever I came too close the patient snarled and snapped his teeth at my hands, straining at the ropes affixing him to the chair. Cataloguing the differences between this man and the primitive cannibals I have studied I had no choice but to conclude that this was an entirely different situation, quite possibly some sort of delirium-causing illness, perhaps a new strain of syphillis. If so, however, the species had made a worryingly abrupt leap of mutation, for these symptoms were far more severe than even the worst case of syphillis. In fact, if it were not for the fact that the man was awake and moving about I should have concluded that he was entirely dead!
Upon exiting the cells, musing on how to document my findings, I was approached by Hastings once more, this time looking considerably distressed. He asked that I examine a sergeant of his platoon that had come down ill. Though I much wished to hurry home and conduct further tests upon my samples, I felt indebted to Hastings for his cheerful aid and assistance about my work, and allowed him to lead me into the precinct infirmary, where the afflicted man was being kept. His skin was pale and scummy with cooled sweat, his eyes rolling about in a distinctly unnerving fashion.
My ministry did not appear to have an effect on him. In the course of my examination I did discover a livid indentation in his skin at the junction of neck and shoulder, curved like teeth marks. The size corresponded roughly with that of the human jaw. A quick inquiry to my young friend determined that this wound was obtained while attempting to restrain the curious specimen I had just examined. It was at this point that I began to be troubled by a sense of foreboding that was not to leave me until superceded by the full horror of the events to come.
While I consulted with Hastings there was a commotion within the infirmary. I pushed my way back through the throng of nervous guardsmen that had sprung up around the door, only to discover two things: that somebody in the Guard had been foolish enough to call a local charlatan with a jar-full of leeches to practice his quackery upon the sergeant, and that the man had in the intervening minutes suddenly expired. This did not stop the fool from attempting to affix his creatures to the patient's skin.
I lay about him with my walking cane and was restrained by a pair of officers who were sorely lacking in proper respect for my noble profession. Naturally Hastings could not come to my aid without compromising his position, so I was summarily ejected from the premises in a decidedly undignified fashion. Dusting myself off, I proceeded to the Regency Hotel, to the rooms of my good friend Eric Aetherby. Aetherby was also in town for the Conference, where he planned to show off a number of curious and no doubt explosive devices he had recently built; and of course to demolish the mathematics of his rivals in the mechanical arts.
“Eric, you scoundrel!” I cried, rapping smartly on his door with my cane. “Rise from your nest of debauchery, for it is gone noon and troubling events are afoot!”
There came from beyond the door a moan of the sort I was accustomed to when rousing the man of a morning. If it was not an ungodly experiment of his that kept him up to all hours of the night it was undoubtedly one of his many vices, which ranged from women to extravagant meals to various mind-altering substances and back to women again. With perhaps a slight detour for committing aggravated assault upon his long-suffering students, who were mostly wild-eyed types with unwashed hair and an unhealthy fascination with exploding things.
Now that I came to think of it Aetherby's waking grumble tended to run more towards threats of dismemberment and curses in his native dialect than anything like this... sustained and frankly unsettling groaning noise.
“Eric?” I called again, less certainly. The moaning from within was interrupted by crashing noises and a high-pitched scream. I tried the door and found it unlatched. The sight that greeted my eyes as I pushed it open was both perplexing and horrific. Eric was standing in naught but his drawers beside the bed, upon which sat a similarly-undressed young lady from whom the screaming was emanating. And the thing beyond Eric, the thing he was holding off with what appeared to be a hat stand, was a slavering mess of jaw and tooth, snarling and reaching out with pale hands – no, gloved hands. The thing was dressed in the manner of a servant, was, it dawned on me, in fact a Hotel attendant transformed into this snarling monster, and even the monster was not unfamiliar to me. It was clearly kin to the afflicted man at the Guardhouse, and it was trying to take a bite out of my friend!
Just as I prepared to rush in with my cane I heard Eric shout “Duck and cover, Tom!” and “Now, woman! Set it off!” The girl on the bed stopped her wailing for long enough to toss something at the creature, whereupon Eric dropped the hatstand and tackled her behind the bed. I just had time to step back behind the door before there was a flash of light and a godawful booming noise that I had come to find strangely reassuring in the course of my acquaintance with Aetherby – if explosions were at hand, all was going according to plan.
My thoughts were cut off when Eric rushed out of the room, tugging the woman behind him – both of them still in an appalling state of undress, now garnished by a coating of soot and the manic look that my friend always got when things were burning. “What are ye waiting for, you old fool!” he shouted, pushing me along the corridor. I broke into a trot to keep up with them and we hustled down the stairwell, sparing not a glance backward for the eerily silent former residence of Eric Aetherby, Engineer, Tinkerer and Fireworks Merchant Extroadinaire.
By the time we reached the Regency's back lot I had recovered my senses long enough to start asking questions over the ringing in my ears, but Aetherby merely waved his hands about and directed me up onto the back of a large wheeled machine like a cart without sides – just a flat wooden square with a miniature steam-engine at one end.
“What the devil is this contraption?” I grumbled. “We've no time to waste on your damn fool devices, we need to do something about that... that creature!”
Eric rolled his eyes and hoisted the young lady, to whom I still had not been introduced, up onto the platform with him (his hands lingering quite indecently). Then he began to pull levers, grinning madly and occasionally shaking soot from his infamous bushy red beard. Soon the machine began to creak and moved forward. I sat down upon the platform and gripped the conveniently provided leather handles ferociously as the ramshackle machine clanked and rattled across the yard to the gate. The steering mechanism appeared to be made out of a cannibalised plumbing system and some gear chains from a printing press. I had known Eric was working on a steampowered street vehicle but I had not expected to be treated to a ride on his prototype!
“Now look here, Eric!” I began.
“Shut it, Tom, there's more of those things back there.” He flashed me a manic grin. “We haven't got enough explosives for the whole city! Oh yes,” he added, gesturing at the woman, “Tom, Janis, Janis, Tom. Old friend, young student, now you know each other.”
I raised an eyebrow at “student” but wisely chose to keep my mouth shut in light of our longstanding friendship, and also the erratic movement of the vehicle. We crashed out of the yard onto the road, not incidentally demolishing the gate which Aetherby had neglected to stop to open. As we jerked across the cobblestones I began to feel queasy, although both Eric and Janis, who had fashioned a scavenged bedsheet into a sort of shift-and-sash arrangement, appeared to be weathering the machine's neurotic movements with no trouble. Just then, however, I looked up and began to feel queasy for another reason.
The streets were a shambles. Here a horse wandered aimless, riderless. There a pack of... of things, god help me I could not think of them as sick people when they had a newspaper-seller on the ground, tearing into him with their teeth, his wares blowing forgotten along the gutter. Others lurched steadily after screaming townsfolk. Some raised their heads and attempted to follow us, but the machine had picked up a steady pace now and left them far behind, to attack the panicked folk on foot. I saw what I had taken to be a corpse in the gutter stagger up, greyfaced, snarling like an animal.
“Dear God in heaven.” I whispered. “This is a plague.”
Janis choked out a sobbing laugh. “No God did this. I will not believe it.”
“No time for existentialism!” Aetherby cried. “We must rally the Guard! Contain the incursion! Man the-”
“Eric,” I interrupted, remembering the dying sergeant. “It's too late.”
He began to protest, but cut off abruptly as we rounded the corner and the Guardhouse came into view. It was overrun by the monsters, many in Guard uniforms, others clearly the result of citizens fleeing the carnage, hoping, like us, that the authorities would know what to do. From one corner of the building there came a plume of smoke.
As we stood atop our metal chariot, frozen in horror, a shout rang out across the square. It was Hastings! Sword in hand, he was attempting to escape the Guardhouse and the mob of creatures that used to be his comrades-in-arms. I saw him cleanly stab an attacker through the heart, but it did not stop moving! It merely continued stumbling towards him, gnashing its teeth, as he tried to withdraw his sword from its chest. At this Aetherby came back to himself and rummaged in the locker attached to the platform of his machine. He pulled out a curious item not unlike a firework, but with rather more cogs and gears and less colours.
“What are you doing?” I demanded.
“Watch this!” he said with a grin.
With that he leapt off the platform, dashed towards Hastings and did something with the levers on his device. Suddenly a plume of flame came from one end and engulfed the monster head to toe!
“Don't look so impressed,” said Janis, standing up and moving to the front of the vehicle. “He's been playing with that thing all week. Near set the damn room on fire so they wouldn't let him keep it inside any longer.”
Before I had the chance to answer, Hastings was swinging onto the platform, lightly singed and panting, with Aetherby right behind him, still sending periodic jets of flame at the creatures on his trail. Janis pulled a lever and tossed some coal from the locker into the engine.
“Get moving!” Eric shouted, waving his arms about wildly. “I'm running out of gasoline!”
“On it,” said the young lady I was slowly realising was, in fact, his student, and set the machine in motion.
“Are you alright?” I asked Hastings quietly as we sped away from the Guardhouse, now burning steadily and spreading fire to neighboring rooftops.
“Just dandy!” He said, sitting heavily on the platform beside me. “You'll have to take a look at my arm, though, sir, as one of those ungodly creatures tried to take a piece out of me.”
And to that I made no reply, but only turned away to hide the look in my eyes as the screaming city burned down behind us.