There was a crowd at the corner of Named Street, a crowd of long grey coats and peering faces. Above them, the pall of a dun-colored night, bisected at its center by a great beam of glaring white light, a vast cone of hard and dead radiance which shone from somewhere low on the ground, up into the sky. The source of the light was invisible from Named Street, emanating from somewhere on Unnamed Street, but its glare had turned the puddles of rain upon the pavement into a tiled path of portentous hieroglyphics, some resembling silver ghosts with their classic drooping arms shaking in the air, some looking like cross-sections of fabulous worms. Worn and sturdy black shoes trod now upon a dancing octopus, now upon the features of the blowing wind; but all, all the fantastical paving slab pictures had been carved together, by the late rain, and the light shooting radiant into the gloom of the night sky.
Mortimer’s tread was steady as he pushed through the crowd of damp, malodorous coats, and to any who blocked his path he flicked his brass disc and said flatly, “LAW”, pacing into the center of the crowd on Unnamed Street, squinting against the light and listening to the silence of the crowd. Not a person spoke, and they moved only to crane their necks.
It was the center, the involuntary source of the light. It was wet, perhaps from the rain, and terrifyingly tiny and vulnerable, fragile as a milk-white baby. It had limbs, but neither hands nor feet on them, and was only as big as a good-sized spaniel dog. On its pointed face a multitude of tiny leaf-green eyes in clusters gazed imploring at Mortimer as he dropped to one knee. The light was beaming through a tiny tear in the fabric of its torso, and it flickered now as the being tried to cover the wound with its trembling, jelly-soft limbs. Looking up into the heavy lidded night, Mortimer had a sense of a membrane torn or split, through which the creature may have fallen. In any case, it seemed young. He realized that his decision had been reached the moment he laid eyes on the thing, but he flashed the brass disc again, too quickly for anyone to notice that it was out of date and thus he was now retired, and said, “LAW. This comes with me.”
He took off his grey overcoat, wrapped it about the thing to cover the wound and keep it warm (and hide its light) and stood up scowling with the unexpectedly heavy burden in his arms. The crowd backed away, one step, two, and he turned on his heel and returned the way he had come, only now the miraculous hieroglyphics on the slick and gritty stones were invisible, silent in the dark, the only sound his thudding footsteps and the quiet, discontented murmurs of the crowd, bereaved of its reason to be, not daring to speak out.
Huge and weighty buildings moved ponderously by. Mortimer’s stolid footsteps did not alter or falter, but he sang, in the dark of his heart.
Puffing from the exertion of the three flights of marble stairs, Mortimer reached his rooms, which were dim, dusty and lamplit, with a weary smell of old age, meat and unopened windows. He noticed this with surprise, and after putting down his precious burden on a pink velvet armchair, he flung wide one of the great windows, letting in the smell of rain and cabbage frying, before securing the shutters for privacy, and kneeling to examine his prize.
The limbs were as soft, moist and bonelessly flexible as that of a very young baby, but the torso, he ascertained with the very softest of clasps, was solid and boned like the staves of a barrel or the whalebone of a corset. There was no hair of any kind anywhere on the tender pale body, but a flexing slit in the face seemed to be a mouth, confirmed he thought by the kitten-soft mewing which emerged from it as he carefully stroked the bulbous head and gazed into the bright and multitudinous eyes. It was pleased. The slit of light beaming from its body threw dazzling rings onto the lofty, dirty ceiling.
For the first time in three years, Mortimer smiled. “Well then,” he whispered, his knees popping as he stood, “Let’s see if we can work you out.”
He made notes as the days passed, using an old and well-loved cypher, and kept the shutters closed until the wound which spilled light began to heal, and close. As to where the light came from and why the thin and fragile skin hid it so effectively, he vowed that nobody would ever find out. He was no vivisectionist, at least not as a hobby, and anyway he was retired now. Hadn’t done anything like that in years. He was… reformed.
He had been alone for a long time, but now it was the two of them, and it was not afraid of him. He nursed it, tried many ways to nurture and please it. He tried various different nutrients, peeling them from the rationed packets and offering their gritty brown and green bars to the mouth, but it would not take them. Spooning water into its mouth produced no actual objection, but he tried the same with a small spoonful of fabulously precious fruit juice, and the thing shat itself continuously for almost forty minutes. Mortimer cleaned up the malodorous green mess and comforted the thing as best he could, throwing the shutters wide to freshen the air. Far across the city, a thundering roar was followed by fire, purple flames which climbed high into the sky, and Mortimer sighed and pulled on the gas mask which hung in the window before the inevitable fumes began. The thing in his arms peeped in alarm, and he hastily closed the window.
He thought it must be a baby.
Whatever it was, it was quite helpless, and therefore might as well be a baby. Mortimer could vaguely remember the birth of both of his sons, but they were long gone now, of course.
He took the thing to bed with him, and it seemed content enough to be there, waving its limbs with a motion of willow branches in a gentle breeze.
In the morning there was an orange haze over the narrow dark streets, and Mortimer resolved to risk leaving the thing alone – he really must give it a name soon – while he collected his pension from LAW. It was meagre enough these days, but he was determined to somehow acquire some milk – perhaps it would drink milk. He would sit it in a bucket before he fed it this time, though. His rugs were ruined.
On the street, he passed only two people, one a woman with a scarred mouth, and one an elderly, hostile man, and he knew they knew him as a former LAWman, but he was fairly sure he didn’t know them – so they probably weren’t part of the crowd which had seen the creature in Unnamed Street. It was in any case unlikely that anybody would be fool enough to tell tales on a LAWman, even retired. Following the rain of the long night before, this short morning threatened to be very dry and very hot; his mask protected against the dust but nevertheless he quickened his pace. For once, he wanted to be home. The black-brick megalith of LAW before him failed to arouse the usual prickle of awe mingled with disgust; he merely hurried across the vast square, through the fifteen-foot doors and through the labyrinthine, mean little passages of grey that led to the Pensions Department, taking his tokens and thinking of nothing but milk. He knew a place where he could find it, of course.
In the café nook the bargirl, Glenda, stared at him with a face which went beyond hate into something almost serene, but she took his pittance and she gave him back white gold, losing a small fortune in the process. It was no wonder, really, that nobody was ever very pleased to see him.
The sky darkened as he was walking home, a brown gauze falling over the city, putting a hazy distance between Mortimer and the life which, he supposed, he’d helped to shape. Almost home now, but as he marched past the black mouth of a crooked alley, the mouth opened and he heard its voice, a ghastly rusty screaming which echoed down the street to mingle with the steady wuther of the winds; for a moment his palms went cold, but the unearthly screams were only a dying fox, which staggered out bloody from nose to tail, and died at his feet. In disgust he pushed it to the wall with his shoe where it could rot with the other detritus; but he failed to see there the corpse of a cat half liquid with rot, and pushed his shoe into the noisome mess before running sprightly up the stairs to see his little one.
Wild with excitement, myriad button-bright eyes blinking and sweet soft limbs flailing, the creature yipped and mewed and knocked over the cup containing the precious milk, its slit of a mouth popping like a goldfish. It took Mortimer half an hour to understand what it wanted. Half an hour later, then, he was heavily gloved with a menthol-soaked scarf about his face, gagging as he scooped the cat into a sack. Somewhere, there was a siren blaring and nearby there was the rumble of many feet running. A curtain twitched across the street and a woman with no eyes looked out. Mortimer had to look for quite a while before he realized that she wasn’t one he’d done. His memory wasn’t what it was and there had been so many. Glancing at the sky, he carried the sack at arms’ length up the narrow stairs, deciding to host the meal in the bath tub as he did so.
He couldn’t stay in the room while the creature was finally eating, the stench was too much, but he sat at his dusty kitchen table and listened to the ecstatic little cries and murmurs that only a hungry baby could make, and a wholly unfamiliar, helpless smile of tenderness creased his old mask of a face.
He cleared out the bones and rinsed the slime while the creature slept where it had fallen, distended with putrid meat, tiny iridescent lids whirling over its little bright eyes in the strange rhythm of its sleep. He let it snooze for many hours, watching and wondering what it dreamed of, before he gently woke it and told it, “Now you’re a mucky pup. Covered in that dreadful stuff, you’re a mess. Time you had a bath, ain’t it lucky you’re in the right place?”
He heated water on the stove to a gentle warmth, and with the pot in his hand they cooed at each other, happy and in harmony while he poured the water and the creature splashed, until he lathered up the soap and touched it to the creature’s skin, when it shrieked like something from hell and six razor-sharp blades of black bone shot out from sudden slits in its warm and silky sides, two of them piercing his palms.
Time ticked to a stop and there was nothing but shocked silence from them both, then Mortimer’s own scream pierced the dark and the creature was shrieking along in shriller pitch, the blade-bones shooting back inside its barrel-torso and sending another explosion of agony into Mortimer’s hands. There was a moment of darkness for Mortimer, but it was ended with dazzling light; the creature was rolling helpless at the far end of the rub, wailing in pain and distress, and the white beams on the ceiling left him in little doubt as to why. He’d hurt it. He hadn’t meant to- he truly hadn’t- but he had. Gasping in fiery pain, he reached out his bloodied hands to comfort the creature, but before he could get within a foot of it, the blades shot out again, and how it wailed!
It wailed all night!
He sat up in bed, with his bandaged hands burning on the blanket before him, cold and alone all night, while it wailed, on and on, from the bathtub.
It hadn’t meant to hurt him, he was sure of that. And yet this dark flame of anger because it wouldn’t understand that he had never meant to hurt it, either. That was not who he was any more.
One comfort was that in spite of, or much more likely because of, the endless note of pain in the ceaseless screaming, none of his neighbors alerted LAW. He imagined them lying sleepless in bed, imagining that he had come out of retirement. He had a cold hard smirk on his old face, but inside, he wanted very badly to cry.
The dawn came white and peaceful like something from a book, so impossibly calm that it shocked him. With his damaged hands like claws, he managed to scoop the wounded creature from the tub where it was finally sleeping, wrapping its wounds and cuddling it in a blanket, and taking it back to bed, where he whispered promises to it, and it whimpered in its sleep.
That evening, Peto called. Mortimer had forgotten it was their night for rum and chess. He decided to risk it and left the creature in the bedroom, snuggled up in the bed. If it woke and screamed, he could always tell Peto it was a two-token whore. It would give Peto a laugh.
It didn’t wake and Mortimer found he rather enjoyed an evening away from its soft, heart-wrenchingly vulnerable company. He smoked three large and illegal cigars, and enjoyed the game, which he won. “Fuck!” Peto had exclaimed when he saw Mortimer’s hands, “what the hell happened?”
“Burned them on the damn stove,” Mortimer said quickly, and Peto raised his immense white brows: “You had fuel? You must still be better connected than me, you old sod.”
At the back of Mortimer’s mind, though, was always the memory of those blades of black bone, and he frowned, trying to flex his fingers through the pain.
In the night, a howling began from every direction of the globe, wild and eerie, rising and falling but never ceasing; “Wild foxes and wolves and other creatures without names,” Mortimer tried to explain to the shrieking little thing, but it would not be silent until he smothered it and poked it in a practiced way where he knew that on a human the solar plexus would be, a move causing both fierce agony and temporary suffocation for the recipient. It didn’t have the same effect here, he was sure; the little thing eventually stopped shrieking when it ran out of whatever breaths it took. When he took the pillow away, its multitude of eyes were shining up at him in terror and reproach, rapidly cycling through a panic of blinks in a way that reminded him of the heaving of a chest struggling for air. It shook like a jelly. This time he did cry, terrible dry old man’s sobs, his teeth clenched in fury and his hands hovering, helpless, over the creature, trembly with remorse and baffled tenderness. By the time the great dull sun rose, they were curled up close again, both worn out.
In the five days which followed, things continued.
The creature bruised a vivid green, and keened like a baby fox in the night.
Another creature was found in The Street Whose Name has been Forgotten, some misshapen thing which bit several grey-coated bystanders and was subsequently stomped to death by two passing LAW members. (“See how lucky you were that I found you? Now I’m retired, of course?” Mortimer demanded of the little creature and, halfway through a meal of decomposing fox, it looked up peaceably and peeped in what he took for agreement.) Nobody knew where it could have come from; there were those who peered fearfully up at the skies and those who poked mistrustfully in the sewers. One evening, the cobbles of Mortimer’s own street rose all at once with a rough grinding sound, slid in a graceful ballet up to the level of the door knockers, and slowly subsided. He shook his head, the creature cradled in his arm, and pointed at this fresh atrocity. See what we’ve come to, his eyes said.
On the stairs, Mrs. HM Barnes from the ground floor (two brothers and a grandfather taken by LAW, one returned, under surveillance but no current red flags) glared at Mortimer from the corners of her red eyes, and after forty serene and unassailable years of placid torture and state-sanctioned murder, Mortimer cringed away from this sign of judgement, because he was afraid she knew what he’d done; scooped up a creature fallen or pulled from another kind of place entirely, meaning only to care for it and learn its secrets, and then burned it with his cigarette end when it threw his china cup to the floor in a tantrum.
He tried to deny this to himself, as he walked past the gibbet and its Sunday crowds; he told himself that when his sons had fled in terror from him and his wife slashed her wrists on discovering of the true nature of his work, he hadn’t turned aside or drooped in shame. So why would this be any different?
Perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps only now –
He stopped, in the very center of The Glorious Square. He stopped and looked around, really looked, for the first time in … awhile. The sky was too many colors, empty and vast, ringing like a tongueless bell. Great black shadows, too big to be cast by the battered buildings alone, hovered over the deserted square. The old market stalls were still leaning up against the ancient walls, the faded covers torn by very old bullets, and rats the size of cats were squealing in battle fury, fighting in every shadow. The sirens began to sing again and Mortimer felt very old and very suddenly full of dread. The wind began to rise. It was the kind of wind that could tear your scalp from your face, your soul from your nostrils. Full of sand and dust and bones. Mortimer covered his face and tried to run.
Flung down side-streets, hurled across roads, gasping and crying, he nevertheless managed to dodge two noseless, one-legged furies who shot from an alley howling for revenge. He ran, he fell. The world fell dark, the sky black as tornadoes but not a living cloud was seen to move. The sky was cover; the sky was hiding its own deeds. Mortimer tore open the door to his building and staggered up the stone steps.
“Peep! Peep!” crowed the battered little creature on seeing him, one limb hanging in a sling, a dozen slits of light sending a dozen signals through the dark. It was glad to see him. Mortimer buried his face in his hands and drew breath to scream until his throat was raw; then his breath caught in his throat as the wind cut out in a millisecond and the world fell utterly silent.
No less dark.
Silence, and darkness, both holding their breath; both waiting. He stumbled to the window, dread now coursing through his veins, his bowel hot and weak. He tried to pull the shutters, but they were motionless; not stuck or stiff, simply being held.
Motionless. The whole world, motionless. He tore a breath into his lungs and scooped the creature into his arms; he knew that he hurt it, again, but this time it did not keen, did not howl, only its whole body vibrated like the string of a tiny viola. Its eyes were motionless, bright and green as a heart monitor. Staring up.
The blackness was total up there until a light flashed, on and off, joined by another. Like a picture he’d once seen of the aurora borealis, electric green they flashed, more and more of them. He looked down at the creature, flashing in response, humming like a wire, longing and hope pulsating from its tiny form; looked at the sky and the great eyes opening all over its vast black canvas. Mortimer understood then what had come and why it had come, and he looked again at the creature waving its limbs in loving welcome and relief, bruised and burnt and cut and terrorized. The sky was gone; something beyond comprehension in size and power was looming over the city, looking for the creature in his arms.
“But I love you,” he sobbed to the little one, “I did love you. You are all I’ve got. I didn’t mean to-”
The darkness shot without warning into the room, and he was blinded by it, suffocated and deafened. His arms went limp with blank terror, and the warmth of the creature was lifted away. He was alone. Vision returned slowly, in shades of bruise; he blinked drily up at the unknown quantity above, and there was a long, long pause while the quantity took the lost creature home, and saw what had happened to it.
A great suction and then oxygen, nitrogen whirled up in the tornado of an indrawn breath of rage. Choking, Mortimer staggered down on one knee, still staring into the neon-green whirling stars above, cold and vengeful as every human eye he’d stared into for the past forty years. Screams, sirens, howls arose from the wrecked streets and Mortimer knew that the quantity had the power and the motive to destroy every mote of this wretched city; it could end them all with a breath. He sank onto his back and his eyes fell shut and a smile of the most unbearable, blissful release creased his hard mouth. Finally. Thank God, they would finally all pay and there would be an end to this.
His trembling smile widened. He waited.
Blinking, the grey day met his furtive peep. The dust in the air was settling on his prone body, the light from the window was dirty and full of moans and yells. Above the protesting hubbub, the drone of a collection van, a loudspeaker “Go back to your homes. Stay indoors.” Mortimer stared at his own filthy yellow ceiling in blank disbelief. He inhaled. His apartment stank of rotting flesh. His bath was grimed with the unspeakable. It was cold. He was alone.
He groaned to his feet and stumbled to the window; in the street, terror and rage, business as usual. In the sky, nothing but poison and filth. Turning in a circle, Mortimer was alone. Had anything ever truly been…? Yes, there was one of its blankets, stained with its fluids; there was the china cup it had broken. Yet it was gone. Its parent was gone; they had disappeared, and taken the worst vengeance of all; they had left this world untouched, and left him to live in it.
When his sobbing was done, Mortimer climbed up to the roof. He could always go back to work. Or he could jump and break his own neck. Staring into an electric blue sunset, Mortimer considered his options, of which there were really none at all. He’d made all his choices years ago; made them wrongly, and could never make them again.