From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories, an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams

Fiction

The House of Gears

The house rose upon the crest of a high, tumbled hill like the tombstone upon the world’s grave. On a dour day, the lowering clouds would bury the place in their embrace, gasps of thin vapour running along lintel and gambrel, blinding the windows and pushing the gardens that lay about it into dream. Today, the only clouds were high and unconcerned against a sky as blue as a peacock’s feather. Yet the very clarity in which this light showed the house threw details into acute relief that might, in truth, be better smudged and rendered uncertain behind cloud or night.

Acute or obtuse, Johannes Cabal didn’t like it.

His aversion to the place had started long before he even clapped eyes upon it. It had started a month and two hundred miles away when Cabal, a necromancer of some little infamy, had discovered a reference to it in a dead man’s notes. The dead man had been kind enough to write them for Cabal after being raised from a dreamless sleep of some six year’s duration. “Requiscat in pace,” Cabal had said to the hapless corpse as he returned it to the earth afterwards. “Until next time.”

Necromancy is not a popular practice, specifically amongst those who do not practise it. Secrecy and self-encloisterment from a disapproving world are the marks of the practitioner. Nor yet does it stretch to professional journals by which the state of the art may be more easily learned. There are no directories, no friendly associations, no annual dinners. Those who study this black science do so under the opprobrium of having to steal their test materials, usually from graveyards, although gibbets were always useful. Thus, any data a necromancer can gather from another is more valuable to him than gold dust. The unfortunate cadaver that had been so helpful in Cabal’s researches had once been a necromancer itself, in the happier, more vital days when it still breathed and before the families of some test subjects came to call.

The notes had referred to a Monsieur Samhet, who lived in a strange house in the hills. They were vague about Samhet’s accomplishments—the dead were never at their best while essaying in shorthand—but he seemed capable of resurrecting with an insolent ease that intrigued Cabal, many of whose own experiments ended with unpleasantness and scuttling offal. There was, it was true, something about the very vagueness of the inherited notes that had troubled Cabal. However, this disquiet proved insufficient to dissuade him from mounting an expedition to visit the mysterious Monsieur Samhet.

So, now Cabal stood upon the hillside, his long black coat flapping about him, his hat held firmly to his head by the means of a scarf that he had wound from crown to chin and round again. He was also wearing stout walking boots, a necessity that irked the few splinters of vanity that still prickled him. He liked to believe he was a practical man yet sometimes practicality weighed against his dignity, and his dignity was a high horse he kept permanently saddled. Hoping that nobody was about to see his boots or how his hat was anchored, he pushed himself on against the biting wind and up towards the dark silhouette of the house.

He’d left his habitual Gladstone bag at home, feeling it would be an unnecessary burden, but had transferred its most vital contents over to the long jacket he wore beneath the coat. He had, however, brought his walking stick. It was not a suitable item for hiking; its elegant black shaft and the tarnished silver death’s head that capped it were the affectations of a man about town. It seemed very out of place lending him assistance on the steep and rock strewn path.

The details of Cabal’s hike are unimportant but for leaving him in a fouler mood than usual. This mood was not lightened when he finally found himself, extraordinarily, at the gates.

There isn’t another living soul within twenty miles, thought Cabal, yet he feels the need for gates. Large iron things topped with rusting spikes that fairly promised lockjaw. Cabal was considering what to do next when they obligingly swung open with the hideous squeal of un-oiled hinges. Cabal watched them with studied ennui as they ponderously glided to their furthest limit, stopping with a shuddering clang! When he was happy that he had given the impression to any hidden watcher that he had been waiting for the gates to do something truly remarkable and, in this, been disappointed, he walked in.

To the disquiet about the house that he had derived from the notes, his antipathy to its location and the odium that its form aroused in him, he now added a profound dislike of its garden. The garden, such as it was, was enclosed by a circle of high iron fencing some two hundred feet in diameter that looked, to Cabal’s eye, to be perfectly round. At some point, somebody—presumably Monsieur Samhet—had tried his hand at gardening before very wisely giving it up. Some trees stood around, unhappy and lonely. Forms that might have been flowerbeds lay strangled beneath scrub and bushes. By the path was a pond, a large ornamental affair edged with twisted stonework. In its centre was a large rock upon which a naked male figure stood, furious and triumphant, man-size in bronze. A chain stretched between his hands caught at the moment after snapping, the ends flailing away. Perched by the side of the rock, an eagle was captured in a state of terror.

Prometheus unbound, thought Cabal. An interesting study. Where are you now, o gods?

He paused to look at the scene. The water was dark and reflected the blue skies and the fleeing clouds perfectly in its surface. Again, the feeling of unease settled upon Cabal, this time crystallized into the form of a swan—a dead mechanical swan that lay half submerged on its side in the shallows. It wasn’t quite close enough to reach, even with his cane, but he could see that it must once have been skinned with some organic laminar that had long since rotted away. Exposed within were a steel frame, soiled and dark, and a subtle mass of cogs and sundered springs. Cabal appreciated craftsmanship and it pained him to see such an exquisite piece of work abandoned thus. What sort of man was Samhet that he thought so little of so much?

Cabal moved on. At the door he raised his hand to knock, but then paused to see if it would perform the same welcoming trick as the gates. It did not, so he rapped firmly upon the stern wood. There was a long moment during which he could have sworn he heard distant rumbles and clicks as if he had just put some enormous engine into motion by knocking, as if the great house itself was a machine. The curious sounds subsided, and, in the moment of silence, the door opened.

Cabal looked in, and then he looked down. “Monsieur Samhet, I presume?”

The man who had opened the door was not tall; he was barely even short. He stood around four feet tall and wore a peculiar coat of a dull black material, perhaps felt. It was bell-shaped, yet seemed to closely fit the form of the odd little man, the edges of the coat reaching right down to the ground, to completely obscure the man’s legs and feet. Cabal could see no way in which the coat could fasten; it seemed to have been stitched directly into place. Samhet also wore curious black gloves made of some synthetic material that glistened with an unhealthy sheen. The only flesh exposed was his head, a fact which, in all honesty, Cabal thought unfortunate.

Monsieur Samhet (for he had nodded at Cabal’s inquiry) had a head that was congruous to his slightly bloated, bell-like body. He looked as if he would, in a mostly ideal world—an entirely ideal world would have had no need for him—be completely bald. However, this being a far from ideal world, he instead had a tightly coiffured head of pale red hair that was so primped and oiled and tormented into submission that the overall effect was of some form of bony excrescence that had been painted orange.

Samhet smiled as if the expression was something he’d found in a text book. “I’ve been expecting you. Please, please come in, M’sieur Cabal,” he said, spending far too long on the last syllable to be seemly, letting it roll around his mouth picking up phlegm as it went until it died a miserable, rheumy death in the back of his throat.

“You know my name.”

“Your fame precedes you,” he simpered, like a man who is reading How to Simper in Five Weeks and is up to day three.

Cabal looked at him, silently appalled. If the horrible little man asked him for his autograph, he decided, it would be necessary to kill him. Misinterpreting Cabal’s silence for acquiescence, Samhet stepped back and waved Cabal inside. Except, Cabal’s methodical eye noted as he crossed the threshold, he didn’t step. Samhet had swept back and was now in the process of sweeping across the large, dark hallway. Cabal watched his progress with interest, quite ignoring the inevitable report of the great door closing unbidden behind him. The hem of Samhet’s coat moved slightly as he travelled and Cabal distinctly caught the glimpse of shining metal and silky black rubber.

“I notice,” said Cabal, apropos of nothing, “that you move on castors.”

“Yes!” cried Samhet, utterly unabashed. “You like, yes?” He pirouetted on the spot, cackling happily. “I move like the Georgian State Dancers, sweeping and swooping about the place. So very elegant. I like elegance. Don’t you, M’sieur Cabal?”

Cabal gestured at the curving staircase that performed a 180° turn as it rose from the ground to the first floor. Vertical in its arc stood part of a girded and baroque lift shaft, the door open. “You have made allowances for your condition within this house, but it must inconvenience you when you are outside.”

“I never go outside,” said Samhet. “It bores me.” He wheeled silently towards an open door beyond which could be made out a richly appointed sitting room. Seeing that he had the solution to the garden’s wretched state, Cabal followed.

When he entered, Samhet was already pouring two sherries from the lowest Tantalus Cabal had ever seen. He took the moment to look around, and what he saw only deepened the sense of disquiet that had been dogging him. The place was spotless. Even surfaces well out of Samhet’s reach were clear of dust. He must have servants to do such work but, in that case, where were they? Why had he opened the door himself? Perhaps most disturbingly, how did Samhet know who he was? His fame preceded him, indeed. Cabal only generated infamy, and he had always been careful to avoid too much accruing in one place. He assiduously avoided antagonizing the locals in the area in which he lived and paid a tolerable bribe to the local police sergeant every Christmas to keep that corner of the world uninterested in his business. There was no reasonable way he could have been expected or recognized by this odd little man. It was a mystery.

Cabal didn’t like mysteries.

Samhet had finished pouring two glasses and pivoted to offer one to Cabal. Cabal crouched to take the one Samhet had obviously intended for himself.

Samhet was irritatingly tolerant. “A cautious man, M’sieur Cabal, eh? I admire caution. In your occupation, caution is a necessity, hein?”

“In my occupation?” Cabal flared his nostrils over the glass and inhaled. It smelt like sherry. “I was under the impression that we shared our profession?”

“Ah ha! Once, once I followed your path, but now? No, no, no! It is a chimaera, a phantom. There is no satisfaction to be had in necromancy.”

Necromancy. It was a word that was not bandied about easily by most people. One way or the other, thought Cabal, Monsieur Samhet was not most people.

Samhet continued, “There are better techniques that furnish better results, much better results.” He paused to drink an uncouth gulp of sherry followed by a smacking of lips. Cabal finally allowed himself a small sip. “Once one appreciates the fundamental truth, then nothing is denied to one. You wish to resurrect the dead? Child’s play! Immortality? A simple procedure! The truth,” he repeated it slowly with emphasis, “the truth can make a man … into a god!”

Cabal thought Samhet looked more like a jelly mould than a deity, but forbore to say so. Instead he asked, “And what truth would this be?”

Samhet wheeled over by the fireplace and signalled to Cabal that he should make himself comfortable on the sofa. Once he was sitting, Samhet said, “It is so simple. It is nothing but a matter of perception, an alteration in perspective. Tell me, M’sieur Cabal, what is death?”

Cabal considered. It was not a simple question. “Death is the extinction of life. You would do better to ask ‘what is life?’ Death is not something in and of itself. It is a negative. Any man with a knife or an axe or a gun can deal in death. Many do. I deal in life.”

Samhet fussed his hands and clenched his eyes with irritation, the first real emotion he had displayed. “Semantics, semantics! I do not care in what you deal, you should be concerned with that which you seek to negate, and that is death, hein? Of course it is. And death,” he said, trundling up and down in emphasis, “is entropy.”

“Entropy, by definition, cannot be negated,” countered Cabal.

“Not in any cosmic sense, no, you are quite right. But on the mundane level, the day to day, we fight entropy all the time. We repair roofs, paint woodwork, clear gutters on our houses. And what is the human body if not a house for the soul?”

“If you are suggesting a regime of clean living and vitamins, we are clearly talking at cross purposes.”

“Clean living? Ha!” Samhet raised his glass to Cabal and drained it. “What is the point of extending life if one can not enjoy it, eh? No point, no point at all. No, that will give one at most a few extra years. I am talking about decades! Centuries! ‘Clean living and vitamins’! No, no, no! That would make me into nothing but a beautiful corpse.”

Cabal thought that unlikely in the extreme. “This is all very interesting, but…” Cabal paused. He seemed to be slurring. He did not drink much as a rule, but he doubted a couple of sips of sherry were going to have that profound an effect. Unless, of course … He attempted to rise and his legs failed to answer him. His glass slid from nerveless fingers to shatter on the marble tiling. “I appear to have been drugged,” he observed.

Samhet ignored him. He was wheeling back and forth, engaged upon his thesis.

“Immortality—pure life without end—must counter this entropy, this rotting of the flesh even as we draw breath. It must provide an incorruptible vessel for the intelligence.”

Cabal tried to speak, but his tongue rolled from side to side of his mouth like a drunk upon the English road. “Unghk,” he managed.

“Impossible, you say?” Samhet didn’t seem to notice his visitor was slowly sliding off the sofa to the floor. “Only the bodies of saints and vampires are thus? Well, that is true. I, however, have neither the inherent guilt necessary to be a good Catholic and I fear I should cut a poor figure as the latter.”

It was impossible to disagree with this assessment. It would be like being vampirised by a barstool.

“But if my body must suffer the rigors of time, it shall do so under my terms! I shall not age! I shall not decay! I shall remain forever…” Samhet grasped the seam of his garment, “Modular!” He tore viciously at the cloth. “Versatile!” The cloth rolled back under his rubberized fingers. “Samhet!” Beneath the bell-like coat lay the harsh gleam of steel, the glint of small brass rivets, the fairground contortions of reflections upon a rounded metallic surface. “Behold the ultimate, necromancer! I call ‘Fie!’ upon your alchemical Übermensch! I give you … die Menschmachine!”

As if on cue, the doors at the end of the room swung open and three ghastly figures walked in. Slow and precise in their movements, they had once been men until Samhet had “improved” upon nature using stainless steel and copper, electrodes and actuators. Now they glittered under the lights, armatures and wiring erupting from their flesh, braces and pivots reinforcing limb and joint. At least half the prosthetic additions seemed to have been installed after the men had been dressed in butler’s clothes.

As they advanced, Cabal realized he recognized one as a rival necromancer who had vanished some two years earlier, missing presumed lynched. It was suddenly clear that, like Cabal, the wretch had followed rumours to Samhet’s retreat. That, like Cabal, he had accepted Samhet’s hospitality and sherry. Cabal’s future suddenly looked unpleasantly mechanical.

“Bolph,” said Cabal, less impressively than he had hoped, and passed out.

#

Drug-induced unconsciousness is rarely like sleep. When Cabal opened his eyes, he had no sense of any more time having elapsed than in a blink. But his change in surroundings and the chemical dryness in his mouth told their own story.

Samhet, like Cabal, preferred his laboratory to be up in the attic. Unlike Cabal’s relatively cramped facility, however, Samhet’s stately house provided a large and airy space that he had filled with gleaming white surfaces and art deco science. Cabal lay untidily sprawled across a very low-lying gurney while Samhet, his steel torso once more sheathed in black, wheeled happily back and forth collecting a variety of surgical tools and mechanical enhancements for Cabal’s imminent metamorphosis. It disturbed Cabal that he could hardly tell the difference between the tools and the enhancements.

He tested his limbs and found some response, but little more than the twitch of a finger or the flare of a nostril. His tongue, at least, no longer seemed to be made of soft leather.

“Samhet,” he wheezed, almost losing the “m” sound to sluggish lips.

The name was not spoken loudly, but Samhet heard it instantly. He trundled to Cabal’s side. “You are awake, M’sieur Cabal? That is unfortunate. I shall have to sedate you again.” He made to go to the pharmaceuticals cabinet.

“This is it?” whispered Cabal. Samhet paused, spun on the spot to look back. “This is your great triumph?”

Samhet frowned. “Mais, naturellement,” he replied, “it is self-evident. As this body wears out, I replace the failing components with others at the last equivalent or even superior. How can this not be a greater and more elegant solution to the question of mortality than your pettifogging about in burial grounds? I,” he held out his arms and posed, “am the ultimate.”

“You look like a milk churn on wheels.”

Samhet giggled girlishly. “I could, perhaps, be taller. And I shall be. My physicality is now subject to my whim. That is another advantage of my method.” He turned away.

“Still going to have trouble with stairs, though, aren’t you?” Concealed by his body, Cabal was frantically exercising one finger. If he could raise his heart rate, metabolize the drug more quickly, perhaps there might be a way out of this. His little finger straightened and crooked, straightened and crooked like the most enthusiastic disciple of calisthenics. But he needed time. “What about those wretches you have experimented upon? There is precious little of the ultimate about them.”

Samhet paused and turned back to Cabal. It seemed he had the overweening vanity of the egomaniac, which was hardly surprising. If Cabal could keep him explaining his grand scheme until able to move again, then he’d probably find the house also contained a poorly concealed self-destruct mechanism. “They? Oh, they were just doodlings, variations on a theme of perfection. Being variants, they are not perfect.”

“I’ve seen more intelligence in a zombie,” said Cabal truthfully. “You’ve ruined their minds for no reason.”

“No reason?” That giggle again. “M’sieur Cabal, have you any idea how difficult it is to get staff these days? They came to my door seeking an insight into my method. I provided a practical demonstration. I have had no complaints.”

I’m complaining.”

“There’s always one,” said Samhet dismissively. “Hardly my fault if you barely even tasted your sherry. A single decent swallow and we would not be engaged upon this tiff. Speaking of which, you must think me very foolish indeed if you do not think that I know full well that you are playing for time. Time, I think, for more sedative.”

“Very well. But there are two things that you have not considered.”

Samhet’s complacency faltered and his rubber-coated hands clawed the air in irritation. “What is it, Cabal? Quickly now, I will not be distracted further!”

Cabal smiled dryly and said nothing. Samhet wheeled over. “You grow tiresome, necromancer. Speak now. You won’t have the option shortly.”

“The first thing,” said Cabal, “is that calcified pompadour looks ridiculous.” Samhet’s eyes glanced upwards with surprise. He apparently believed his hair was as perfect as the rest of him. In this he was technically correct.

“The second thing…” Cabal drew up one leg. It felt like wood, but at least it was moving. “…is that it’s far too late for more sedative.”

With a clang of shoe leather against thin steel, Samhet flew backwards across the polished floor, his castors squealing almost as shrilly as Samhet himself. He applied the brakes, but too violently, rising onto two wheels and teetering at the point of falling over. Cabal rolled off the gurney and fell onto the floor like a sack of washing. His legs had insufficient life in them to keep him upright, so he kicked back with them as he drew himself forward on his arms. Samhet’s windmilling was just keeping him on the edge of falling over; Cabal headbutting his base plate put him firmly over it. Samhet fell onto his rounded back where he rolled around, calling frantically for his mechanical servants to rescue him.

Cabal, without a moment’s pause, had dragged himself to the instrument table. His eye scanned quickly along the line of glittering steel. Enucleator … Cushing pituitary spoon (silver plated, very nice) … Nerve root retractors … Ah! His eye lit upon a freshly sterilized four lb. lump hammer. Perfect.

Crawling back to where Samhet rocked and gibbered, he raised the hammer high. Cabal was not a particularly vindictive man by nature, but he did experience some small pleasure at the widening of Samhet’s eyes when he saw the hammer.

“Cabal! We can reach an arrangement! This is not necessary!”

“You’re hardly an exemplar of what is and is not necessary,” replied Cabal, and smashed in Samhet’s face.

It cracked open like a china doll’s, for that was what it was. Or, at least, a first cousin. Cabal rained blow after blow onto Samhet’s head, whose face still expressed dismay even as the artificial flesh that comprised it split and tore under the onslaught. Beneath it Cabal found cunning pads of dry synthetic muscle that had once brought expressions to Samhet’s face, expressions as varied as smug all the way through to very smug indeed. Now they only wrinkled and smoothed spastically. Interesting, but, at that moment, unimportant. The hammer rose and fell again and again and again.

The next target was Samhet’s bell-like body. It rang like a kicked bucket as Cabal worked a seam loose and proceeded to tear the little man apart. For a man who seemed to be in control of the situation, however, Cabal’s face darkened with every newly exposed component, every excavated module. “Where is it?” he said quietly under his breath. The glass tubes of thermionic valves smashed under the hammer, their warm glow dying. Louder, “Where is it?” Wire weave tore and parted. Only glass and wire and Bakelite were exposed. Nothing organic, nothing wet, nothing living. No, something wet there … A small brass cylinder rolled across the floor trailing drops of drugged sherry. Cabal ignored it.

Finally he admitted defeat and rested his hands on the almost empty metal torso, its contents scattered about him. He glared at it, frustrated and angry.

“Where is the verdammt brain?”

“You are looking,” said the house, “in the wrong place.”

Cabal looked up, the colour draining from his face.

It was a strange voice with the timbre of settling foundations, wind in the eaves, all filtered through vocal cords of wire, but it was unmistakably Samhet’s. “Look what a mess you have made of my Mark XIX body, M’sieur Cabal. I shall have to get the Mark XVIII out of storage now.”

The outside bores him, indeed, thought Cabal with a mixture of disgust at Samhet’s dissembling and dismay at the true state of affairs. He had assumed that the self-opening doors and mechanical rumbles in the bowels of the house had simply been contrivances, seen and unseen, of Samhet’s invention to ease the inconveniences of his short-stature and lack of legs. Now it appeared that Cabal had actually been treated to a puppet show the whole time, and had only succeeded in cutting a few strings. The puppet master was not happy with him.

The door opened and two of Samhet’s demi-mechanical servants strode in. They moved quickly, too quickly for Cabal to out-manoeuvre with his body still fighting the last effects of the drug. Instead, he waited until one drew near before smashing its knee with the hammer, turning the joint into a blood pudding of bone and rivets. The servant fell soundlessly, and lay squirming for a moment before attempting to rise. The knee was now behaving like a couple of pounds of tripe rather than a hinge, and the servant fell heavily on its face. In dreadful silence, it tried to rise again.

Cabal climbed awkwardly to his feet and walked in a rapid, stiff-legged stagger for the doors, leaving the other servant momentarily confused as to how to get around its comrade. In a few hasty strides he was through the laboratory’s twin doors, slamming them shut behind him and—for lack of any other way of locking them—jamming the hammer through the handles.

He’d half expected the doors to fight him when he’d closed them, but it seemed that not every door in the place was under the direct influence of Samhet’s displaced intellect. The same certainly could not be said of the front door nor the main gates. Cabal would not simply be breezing out of the place.

Cabal knew he would have to hide for a little while, give himself time to formulate a strategy. He limped awkwardly down the wide spiral of stairs that ran around the girder-work lift shaft running up though the body of the building.

At about the halfway mark, the lift compartment itself whirred past. The third of Samhet’s mechanical zombies was inside, doubtless responding to its master’s summons. As it moved by, the zombie turned slowly to look at Cabal. They watched each other until the floor intervened—calm machine certainty on one side, quiet human desperation on the other. Cabal turned with an archaic and foul invective his maternal grandmother had once taught him and redoubled his efforts to get back to the ground floor with all possible dispatch.

The front door did not disappoint him—it wouldn’t even rattle when he took the handle and pulled. He had an impression that it contained perhaps six remotely controlled deadlock bolts running between the frame and the door itself.

“Ah, ah, ah,” said the house. “Do not be such a poor guest, Cabal! Soon enough, you will regard my little house as your own home.”

I shall destroy him, thought Cabal. He was greatly irritated with Samhet for setting his trap, even more irritated with himself for falling into it, and it only took the addition of a small fear that he might actually lose everything here to catalyse a burning rage within him. I shall destroy him, and I shall enjoy it. I shall enjoy it.

But how could he kill that which does not truly live? How does one murder a house? Specifically, how does one murder a house when one has left one’s gelignite at home? He considered berating himself for such an oversight but, in fairness, it was rarely needed and sometimes led to unhappy incidents.

He stood, leaning against the door as the last effects of the drug wore off, indecisive. He could try burning the place down, but that would probably end badly for him too. No, he would have to be more precise in whatever act of violence became necessary or opportune against Samhet.

No. Not Samhet. Samhet’s brain.

Samhet’s brain; yes, that was really what he was looking for. Samhet’s brain—tucked away in some dark corner directing events like a limbless, spongy Napoleon. In a jar. His triumphant little speech had little doubt of his loathing for a biological form; therefore he would have divested himself of as much of his mortal coil as he could comfortably get rid of with a sharp edge.

An image of a brain, possibly with a little of the upper spinal cord attached, bobbing malevolently around in a gleaming glass vessel presented itself to Cabal. He nodded to himself, added an image of himself pouring in battery acid while the brain thrashed convulsively if unrealistically in its death throes, and moved off in search of it.

It would be in the cellar; Cabal was sure of it. If he ever had to hide his brain, the cellar would be the place he’d choose. Cool, protected, secret—the lurking place of choice for the discreet, discrete, and safety-conscious cerebellum.

Cabal followed the stairs down another turn beneath ground level until they halted in front of a door that was neither imposing nor locked. Slipping through it, and very aware that Samhet might be aware of his location and would be organizing a search if he was not, he took a spill of wood that he found upon the untidy cellar floor and kicked it into the gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. A feeble sort of lock, but one that would have to do. He turned to take in the room, rubbing his hands with a cold and predatory smile upon his face.

Find the brain, kill the brain, ransack the place for anything useful, go home. A simple plan, satisfying in its immediacy. Unhappily, the plan became untenable immediately after the first step.

Samhet’s brain was, predictably, in a jar. Less predictably, the jar still bore half a label for silverskin pickled onions.

There was no nutrient soup, only formaldehyde. No aquarium oxygenators, no wires, no green pulsing lights; just a handwritten baggage label reading My Brain in smudged ink, secured to the jar’s neck with a slowly perishing rubber band.

Cabal once again had the unpleasant feeling that he’d been jumping to conclusions and that every jump took him closer to eternity in a mechanical hell. He wasn’t dealing with a common or garden megalomaniac genius here. Samhet had a slightly more original turn of mind than the average “Now I shall explain how clever I have been before leaving you to die in my deeply flawed execution contrivance” merchant, and Cabal hadn’t granted him the courtesy of appreciating it. Such a lack of appreciation could make a man dead, or at least immortal without the wit to appreciate it.

Cabal dusted off a chair and sat to consider his next move. It was difficult to concentrate with the house’s never-ending mechanical noises so much louder in its belly, but he rested his elbows on the old laboratory table, his head upon the fore and middle fingers of each hand pressed against his temples, and drove out distraction.

Samhet’s servants were undoubtedly searching the house that moment. He couldn’t risk trying to outrun them again; it was one game of Fox and Geese he doubted he could win. He couldn’t strike directly against Samhet because Samhet had somehow found some way of abandoning his physical body—even his brain—and taking up residence in the ether itself for all Cabal knew. His options seemed very limited indeed.

He cast around for possibilities he might not have considered, but every path finished in a cul-de-sac, every train of thought in a derailment, and every second brought discovery nearer. In fact, thought Cabal when he took a moment to consider this, it was surprising that they hadn’t already tried to enter the cellar. It was surely an obvious hiding place and, vanities aside, Samhet was no fool. Why weren’t his demimechanical servants here?

Unable to find a solution to that vexing question, Cabal instead addressed the matter of where Samhet was keeping his mind, his soul. There were several ways it could be done, Cabal knew, but they tended to involve sacred black gems, midnight sacrifices and all the occult trappings that Samhet, by his own admission, abhorred.

Samhet was a scientist, but a different sort of scientist from Cabal. Where Cabal looked for hidden principals in ancient magics, Samhet reached for the torque wrench. Where Cabal tore the truth, raw and bleeding, from five thousand years of superstition, Samhet ordered life with bone saw and oil can. Where Cabal sought to define the indefinable, Samhet engineered immortality. He engineered it.

Cabal’s eyes opened very slowly. He canted his head to one side, to look into the deeper shadows of the cellar. The working of the house was loud here. Very loud. A clacking and rhythmic ratcheting. Cabal had thought it was the sound of the heart of the house, had even begun to grow used to it. Now he knew different.

“Right idea,” he told himself as he rose from his chair and headed deeper into the cellars, “wrong organ.”

Around a corner, down a short flight of stairs, in through an unlocked door, and the noise grew louder with every step. Once through the last door, it resolved itself into a constant clatter, rising and falling in intensity like the sound of a skeleton orgy1, a sound so sharp and penetrating that it made his eardrums shy. Cabal found an electrical turn switch upon the wall and twisted it smartly. The lights glowed on.

Before him stood a row of machines of a type he had never seen before, that he had never even considered before, but whose function he immediately grasped. Each consisted of a tall Möbius loop constructed from twin steel rails. Along the track so formed an endless procession of white rectangular plates formed from some ceramic material or, more probably, coated steel, clicked along in procession starting and stopping rhythmically and abruptly in steps exactly the length of one plate. Cabal stepped closer to examine the plates and was intrigued to note that each was peppered by a regular grid of pits, some of which continued through the plate, some of which did not.

The first machine ran too quickly for him to be sure of its operation, as did the second and the third, right until the seventh at the end of the row. Here he followed the progress of one plate into a device within which small hooked probes delved into the pits and slid tiny gates open and shut. When the plate came out of the other side of the device, the pattern of openings was entirely different to how it had been a moment before. Cabal nodded, impressed. Further along, another device pressed yet more probes into the pits; some penetrated the vacant slots others were held back. The device was connected to the next Möbius loop, precisely at its own bit of apparatus with the hooked arms. Cabal noticed that this loop processed a tiny bit slower than its predecessor. And so on down the row of seven machines, behind it, and the rank of seven behind that. Further and further back, Cabal slowly paced out the clattering engines for six ranks until he reached the very last one.

The incremental decrease in speed between each machine had reached a slow plodding pace here, the plates progressing sullenly around the loop, the hooked arms clicking the slotted pits open and shut in a lackadaisical, almost bored manner. Where all the previous devices had handed off patterns of open and shut pits—representing data, Cabal was sure—to the next device in sequence, this one, however, was pressed snugly up and a wall, and where the reading unit had been mounted on its predecessors, this instead had a dark box mounted to the brickwork. He watched a plate slide into the box, baffles closed around it and then a sudden brilliant glow escaped along the edges where the seal wasn’t quite perfect.

Of course, thought Cabal. He looked back at the ranks of machines and saw them as Samhet’s short term memory—data encoded onto the plates, processed and winnowed down from the general to the specific, the vital from the happenstance. And finally here, at the very last machine, the distillate of Samhet’s experiences was engraved by arc light onto photographic plates. Or sheets. Possibly rolls. Cabal couldn’t be sure of the details, but he was sure that behind the wall was a darkroom that doubled as Samhet’s long-term memory. The irony of Samhet’s inner-self, his very soul being, in actuality, a pokey little cellar did not escape Cabal, but turning this new discovery to his advantage was more pressing than feeling smugly superior at a metaphysical level.

The obvious thing to do was to break the machines. They seemed sturdy, but simple enough to sabotage. All he would have to do was to jam the procession of the looped plates on the first machine and the whole line would either judder to a halt or continue transcribing the same plate or transcribe nothing at all. Cabal wondered what the effect would be; something like a stroke, he assumed, or a strange state where you feel from second to second that you have just woken up—able to remember what happened yesterday, but not a second ago.

Dropping Samhet into an endless mnemonic fugue, however spitefully amusing, did not solve the problem of the clockwork zombies roaming the house. They might take their orders from Samhet but, otherwise, they seemed autonomous. If Cabal were to disable this thinking engine, this memoria technica, forever examining every occurrence and situation in the light of Samhet’s previous experience both living and mechanical, the servants of the house would simply continue to carry out their last order—capture Johannes Cabal. Then, lacking further instructions they would hold him captive until he was dust and then guard the dust. It simply wouldn’t do—he would have to come up with something more elegant.

Samhet wasn’t having the cellar searched; therefore Samhet believed it was secure or else it would already have been sabotaged. Even so, his forces would arrive here eventually by a process of deduction. Cabal would need to find his elegant solution quickly or not at all. He searched the cellars, trying to understand the function of every artefact of Samhet’s research he discovered.

He found a machine, grimy with dust, consisting of a maze of drill bits and electrical probes arranged around the head of a surgical table. The drill bits were still clogged with dried blood and bone powder. This, then, was the machine that had drawn Samhet’s personality from his skull and matriculated it into an enormous series of binary digits. Even if the process analysed the brain relatively rapidly, the speed of transcription was barely up to the mammoth task. Samhet must have lain here for days, even weeks, as his ego was decanted into the machine. Cabal understood Samhet’s determination then, and relented from his earlier desire to destroy him. Even if he was loathsome, his dedication to science deserved some respect.

Besides, Cabal had a better idea.

Samhet, tricycling between madness and genius on demented castors though he was, yet remained a potentially useful resource. Although his researches had taken him in directions that Cabal found odious, that didn’t mean he might not be useful in some future enterprise requiring a mechanical expertise that Cabal lacked. An alternative to destroying Samhet now presented itself to Cabal; an alternative requiring finesse, it is true, but one rich in irony, and irony ran in Cabal’s blood.

In a cobwebbed corner he found a small table with a handle hinged at the tip where it joined a runner across the tabletop. The handle could move sideways and back and forth, a stylus matching a dense field of symbols tabulated on the surface. A moment’s experimentation showed that a steel punch would push through a grill towards the rear of the table corresponding to the position of the stylus over the symbols. A little more searching turned up stack of plates made from thin steel. Placing a plate snugly over the grill allowed a pattern of holes to be punched out with little effort. So, Samhet had needed some plates with permanent information stored upon them before he submitted himself to his automated surgery. Part of that must have been to control the machines that performed the operation, but Cabal could imagine other applications. Emergency procedures for example; what might happen if the Möbius loops spontaneously jammed anyway? No mechanical system is perfect, and Samhet was foresighted enough to consider such contingencies. Somewhere, then, around here…

Cabal found the machine up against the same wall as the last of the constantly clicking machines, snugged up in the corner covered with a rigid case and a tarpaulin over that. He’d noticed it earlier and assumed it was an early prototype or a discarded damaged unit. Now, shorn of its coverings, he saw it was similar but different from the others. The plates were smaller and made of stainless steel, the holes permanently punched rather than the alterable versions of the others. There were also four loops entwined around one another and a reservoir of extra plates at the bottom that were attached as earlier ones had been read and could therefore be safely put to one side. Ultimate function aside, it was a masterful piece of engineering that gave Cabal pause for perhaps a second. Then he began dismantling it.

#

Ingenious as Samhet’s new non-organic existence was, it seemed to have taken a degree of flexibility from his thinking. Either that or he had a dangerous degree of trust in his deductive logic, especially as it was flawed. Some twelve hours had passed and the cellar had still not been searched. Cabal had made a couple of cautious forays up the steps and seen the servants searching and then searching the same rooms again. He gauged each pass took about two hours, in which case the same cupboards were now on their sixth investigation. Not that Cabal minded; even with his unslowing efforts, his near eidetic memory for figures, and his remarkable mathematical ability, his plan was highly involved and a single error would doom him to death or, as he’d seen, worse. Finding Samhet’s notebooks, now discarded since their contents had been rendered part of the machine’s memory, had aided him enormously, but he was still intending to do something with Samhet’s handiwork for which it had never been intended. Still, one can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, thought Cabal rising once more from the plate-punching table. So much the better if the eggs belong to somebody else.

As he worked, he considered how strange it was that there was no sign that Samhet had ever come down here since adopting his mechanical form. The workshops, stores and laboratory were coated with brick dust and grime. Apart from the swept path to the long-term memory darkroom, presumably kept clean by servants bearing photographic supplies, everything had simply been abandoned. But then, on consideration, perhaps it wasn’t so strange. It was, after all, Samhet’s brain and, mechanical or not, Cabal could understand an unwillingness to traipse through it for fear of damaging it. There are words for people who like to tinker with the mechanics of their own brains, but none of them are admiring.

Still, Samhet’s squeamishness was Cabal’s gain. Down here he had found the time, the equipment, the materials and the opportunity to devise and execute his coup de maître. He checked his watch; almost exactly a day since he’d made the wretchedly poor decision to enter the grounds of the isolated house. And now, it was time to go. He set about making the final preparations.

#

“Then search the house again!” squealed Monsieur Samhet. He would have preferred to roar, or even bellow, but the Mk. XVIII’s voice box was not impressive in its tonal range, and was inclined to leap up an octave under stress. He was certainly under stress. His servants (including poor M’sieur Combs with the smashed knee) had completed seven sweeps of the house but the irritating Herr Cabal was still nowhere to be found. He reached out through the etheric links that joined mechanical body to mechanical brain and mechanical house and assured himself once more that none of the external doors had been forced open, and that the windows were secure. They were, and Cabal’s location remained a mystery.

“It is not possible,” Samhet muttered furiously, waving his arms in his usual expression of frustration. His left elbow squeaked piercingly, adding to his fury. “It is not possible! The house, it has been searched from top to bottom!”

Somewhere in the cellars, in amongst a whirl of memory plates and probes flickering like a humming bird’s tongue, a twist of memory pointed out that, technically, no. The house, it had not been searched from top to bottom. There were the cellars themselves. A cunningly wrought probability balance weighed that possibility against the inference that, as Samhet’s brain was clearly still functioning, Cabal could not be in the cellars as he would certainly have carried out sabotage by now. The counterargument reinforced itself by pointing out that he hadn’t been found in the rest of the house after repeated searches. The balance called no more bets and rolled electrical dice. Phosphorescent dots came up snake-eyes, and the search once again excluded the cellars.

Guten Tag, Samhet,” said Cabal conversationally from the top of the cellar stairs.

Samhet whirled to glare at him, which gave Cabal more time than was comfortable to take in the aesthetic disaster that was body Mk. XVIII. It was hemi-spherical rather than bell-shaped, with a round head mounted on the apex that gave more of an impression of an animated bowling ball than a human cranium. The hair was several hanks of red wool clumsily stapled onto a scalp of grimy pink India rubber, the clothing an unconvincing rendering of a rather foppish suit in lilac enamels with something at the lapel that could have been an inexpertly painted carnation, but could just as easily have been a dandelion clock, a cotton wool ball, or a head of cauliflower seen at a distance. The body was also filthy, as if it had been stored in a pigeon loft.

“You!” cried Samhet, in case Cabal wasn’t sure. “You…” His expressionless glass eyes cranked down with a whirr of worm screws to take in the stairs. “The cellars? You have been hiding in the cellars all this time?” The Mark XVIII’s voice box failed to put over his shock, but Cabal assumed it was there anyway.

“Yes. Down among your brain. It was most edifying.”

“What … What have you done?” Still Samhet’s voice purveyed no tension, but his waving arms telegraphed anxiety.

“To your brain? Nothing” said Cabal, adding “yet,” to himself sotto voce; indeed, so sotto as to be silent.

“I do not understand you, Cabal,” said Samhet slowly. “In your position, I would have smashed the machines to pieces.”

“Ah, well, M’sieur Samhet. That is why you are you and I am me. You reduce everything to mechanistic terms. If x and y, then z. You lack nuance.”

“You insult me.” Again the measured tone, although it faltered up an octave before falling back. Samhet was trying very hard to be calm. Somewhere below, a sentiment analogon synthesizer was almost working its grommets loose under the assault of Samhet’s mixed emotions. Anger, fear, hubris, and curiosity churned around cogs and escapements.

“No. I describe you. You’re a genius, Samhet. I would never have even dreamt that what you have achieved here was possible. It’s extraordinary. Remarkable. The artificial brain you have built is a wonder of the modern world. Do you take me for an ignorant Philistine? I have no desire to destroy it.”

It was hard to tell if Samhet was flattered or not. His next words seemed to indicate not. “Pretty sentiments, Cabal. You will still never leave this house.” Presumably summoned directly from the brain, Cabal could hear the servants clanking closer. “What was your next ploy to be? To suggest an alliance, perhaps? I have no need for your necromantic drivel. I have told you! Your techniques are anathema to me!”

“As yours are to me. Still, you have an impressive analytical intellect, Samhet. My researches sometimes require vast quantities of data to be studied. For me, it is a burden. For you, it would be child’s play. Would you do them if I asked you?”

Samhet performed one of his trademark arm waves. When he spoke, his tone broke uncontrollably into a warbling falsetto. Cabal guessed that he was probably quite furious. “Are you not listening, Cabal? Are you afflicted with selective deafness, hein? I am not interested in your researches! Shortly, even you will not be interested in them!”

“Ah,” said Cabal. He took out his pocketwatch. “If you will forgive me for a moment.” And so saying, he ducked behind a large aspidistra in an ornate Chinese pot.

Samhet stopped waving his arms around. Bemusement robbed him of his anger. “What are you doing, Cabal?”

“Hiding,” replied Cabal from hiding.

“But,” Samhet’s India rubber brow furrowed with confusion, “I know where you are! I saw you hide.”

“Yes, you did. Samhet, while I’m waiting, may I ask you to reconsider my offer of an alliance?”

“I have told you, Cabal! I have no…” He tailed off. “Waiting for what, may I ask?”

“Waiting for you to change your mind.”

#

Down in the darkroom where Samhet’s permanent memories were created and stored lay a small beaker within which a test-tube nestled in metal powder. Within the test-tube, a carefully balanced chemical reaction was just reaching its conclusion. Suddenly it glowed an angry red, and the glass cracked as the temperature rose and rose in the reaction’s fierce little exothermic finale. The metallic powder—magnesium—was suddenly hot enough to manage that combination with oxygen that it had always dreamt of. It took the opportunity with gusto. The improvised flash bomb flared up, filling the darkroom with a brilliant illumination too intense to be looked upon. Samhet’s permanent memory for the last day or so suddenly became a mystery to him.

As the flare died down, an unexpected command filtered down from the short-term memory, where Cabal had carefully encoded it. There was a mnemonic emergency—the brain was to be restarted using the last viable long-term memory rolls. The ranks of Möbius memory analogues clattered to a halt, and, in the corner beneath its recently replaced covers, the emergency re-start sequence clattered—rather more tinnily—to life.

#

Upstairs, Samhet stood silent, his mechanical jaw drooping in his mechanical head, his body unmoving, and his hair still ridiculous. From behind the aspidistra pot, Cabal watched cautiously and considered Descartes and his First Meditation on the Evil Genius. As Samhet’s memory was rewritten to Cabal’s arrangement, Cabal thought it unlikely that Descartes had ever considered the Evil Genius might spend at least some of his time lurking behind a plant pot. Not, he corrected himself, that he, Cabal, was evil. A little single-minded, perhaps, but not evil. Not in any cosmic sense.

Abruptly, Samhet looked around, doing as good a job as a mechanical avatar with the form of an animated desk bell can make of looking startled. He wavered, unsure, and looked at the potted plant. There had been something he had intended to do involving that plant, he felt sure. Water it, perhaps. He racked his brains to recall, making them emit an unhealthy chittering sound in the process. Yes, of course. Now he remembered.

He wheeled over to the front door and willed it to unbolt and open.

“I’ve been expecting you. Please, please come in, M’sieur Cabal,” he said, forcing an oleaginous note into his uncooperative voice box.

“Very kind, but I’m already here.”

Samhet swung around to find Cabal lounging by the big aspidistra in the Chinese pot. “M’sieur Cabal! How did you..?” he waved at the door.

“Get in? Oh, well, I’m a necromancer,” Cabal explained loftily, examining his nails.

At this point one of the servants finally reached the hall and headed for Cabal, arms outstretched to grab.

“Stop!” squeaked Samhet, aghast. “Stop, you fool! M’sieur Cabal is our guest.”

The servant stopped. If it felt any surprise in the inconstancy of Samhet’s intentions for Cabal, it did not express them. Instead, it stood motionless, regarding Cabal with the magnificent indifference of a bloodhound regarding a paperweight.

Samhet wrung his hands together like a particularly craven hotel manager. “My apologies, M’sieur Cabal. I don’t know what came over it!”

“Do not concern yourself, Samhet,” replied Cabal giving the servant a wide berth as he walked around it. For its part, it didn’t even trouble itself to watch him, but set about dusting the aspidistra’s leaves instead. “I am pleased with your work here. I’m sure it can be useful to me.”

Samhet would have hugged himself with glee if his arms had been long enough. After all, this was a fulsome compliment from somebody, his memory assured him, that he regarded with godlike awe. But Cabal was speaking again.

“I must be leaving, Samhet. My own work calls. If I need your services, I shall be in touch. In the meantime,” Cabal looked around, slightly at a loss, “just carry on.”

Samhet watched Cabal walk down the path and through the great iron gates. He watched until Cabal was just a dot on the hillside and then until he was altogether gone from sight before he willed the gates shut again. He sighed happily, the sigh wheezing out of the Mark XVIII’s inferior voice box like a deflating toad. This was a wonderful day, a day he had been hoping for … Why, for as long as he could remember. He returned to his work; he had dismantled the Mark XIX for some vague but satisfying reason that he wasn’t to think about too carefully, and must set about constructing the Mark XX immediately.

Samhet trundled to the lift, content that Cabal was in his heaven, and all was right with the world. The truth, he had once said, could make a man into a god. How right he was.

The image accompanying this piece on the “front page” was created by the extraordinary illustrator Snugbat.


1. An unedifying spectacle Cabal had once endured in an establishment that fancied itself as a “Hellfire Club” of sorts. The sight of writhing skeletons smashing each other into dice with their mechanical rutting had proved beyond the doubt of the decadent but not entirely stupid clientele that the sins of the flesh were not nearly so engaging without the flesh. Cabal’s presence, it should be noted, was both under duress and under guard.

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Jonathan L. Howard

Jonathan L. HowardJonathan L. Howard is the author of Johannes Cabal the Necromancer and Johannes Cabal the Detective. Currently taking a break from game design, he has in the past worked on video games as diverse as adventures, platformers, tactical military shooters, and giant war robot sims. He lives in the southwest of England with his wife and daughter. The third Johannes Cabal novel, The Fear Institute, is due for publication in the summer.

9 Responses »

  1. Just listened to the audio version and thought it was fantastic. Made my grocery shopping much more bearable! I will definitely be checking out the novels Cabal stars in in the future.

  2. How wonderful! Johannes, you are my favorite cranky misanthrope. I really look forward to and enjoy these short stories. And Trevor, I’d definitely recommend checking the books out: the first one is amazing, and the second one is even better.

  3. I listened to the audio version of this story a couple of weeks ago and keep thinking about it. I love this line: “Necromancy is not a popular practice, specifically amongst those who do not practise it.”

  4. A lovely story. I admit I almost didn’t make it past the first paragraph, a description of weather and a house by an unknown narrator, but I am very glad I pushed on. The voice was amazing, there were several laugh-out-loud moments, and the story kept surprising me in a pleasant way. I’ve heard it said that there are two ways to create a memorable and popular piece of fiction — a great story, or a great character. And best of all is when you get both. Here, we certainly get both. Thanks for the fun read.

  5. A very enjoyable story with some great touches of humour. I listened to the audio version – the reader was fantastic. Great job on the different voices!

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