Monday, January 24, 2011

Johnny and Edgar: The Boilermakers

A few years back old man Autumn came back from his stint in one of the amphibious assault units that had rolled through the worst part of Bruxemlough. He had served under Warlord Urslingen himself and carried some pride in having been part of a bunch of real fire-breathers and death-dealers. But his time in the service wasn't particularly kind to First Sergeant Autumn. Of course, you can say that about anyone coming back from the weirdzones out along the Eastern Front these days. The things that those kids are forced to face out past the bombed-out ruins of Noblenz and Pashturrim are well beyond the realm of simple nightmares. The weapons employed in the War are masterpieces of horror and destruction developed by true masters of their infernal crafts. The glittering trails of incoming antimatter flies, the misty haze of a zembler swarm rolling in like night fog or the seductively misleading glimmer of polychrome lazflashers that patiently wait until they can detect the schlera of a soldier's eye and then let them have a fast-hellfire dose of gamma particles, are truly bad, bad things. Then there's the psychic ordnance. The less said about that, the better. No one comes back from the fighting without horrifying stories to tell, terrifying secrets to hide, and long-lingering scars of one sort or another.

Those that do come back.

Old man Autumn didn't bring back any scars when he came back from the Front. He brought back something worse. He'd been hit with a virux that had infected him, got deep into his bones and blood and dreams and changed him, twisted his cells and caused his body to grow strange mechanisms that took over his entire left arm before the field medics had been able to temporarily stop the spread of the virux. Strange, anachronistic mechanisms grew out of his very flesh, each one derived from schematics and templates scanned from deprecrated and dis-used databases so obscure that the medics couldn't stop the downloading fever until it had run its course. He'd been steampunked.

The Battlefield Recovery Unit gatelifted First Sergeant Autumn out of the area once the fighting had moved on and the Sanitizers had defuzed or neutralized the remaining unexploded improvised viruxive devices. He woke up, briefly, in the off-pink bowels of a hospital-ship. The biosurgeons did what they could, but the fractalized imprint of the virux was too deeply embedded to be removed and it had already compromised his cellular matrix so that even if he was to get Recovered, the virux would still be there, lurking in his flesh like a cat waiting to pounce. Sarge's days in the service were over. They cut his orders of separation, downloaded his records to his tags, transferred over his back-pay and combat bonuses and had him on a podbus back to the Perimeter in less than seventy-two hours. The Medical Corps do not fool around.

It wasn't much of a homecoming for Sarge Autumn. The seeping mess of gears, cables and other mechanical parts slowly extruding from her husband's tormented and infected flesh absolutely horrified Euphelia. It revolted her. Disturbed her. Made her go funny in the head. His missus broke down and wouldn't stop crying once she saw what had happened to her husband. A siluroi's tears tend to be slightly toxic. They can sometimes burn unprotected flesh. Euphelia's tears pretty much ruined what was left of her looks. Another casualty of the War.

Sarge did everything that he could to make a go of it, but the war-wounds were difficult to manage and people tended to avoid him rather than risk infection, despite the promises and assurances of the military medics and Deconscription Social Services personnel who dropped-in on the family to monitor the reassimilation and recivilianing process. The medical benefits really helped them out during the tough first few months of Sarge getting back into the flow of non-militarized life.

He took a job tending bar for a rundown old hootch-shack out along the Talechenosky Backflow, on the island of green egrets--a real dive not three squirts from the Tributary Gate to the Red Marshes. It wasn't much, but it made a difference for Sarge's self esteem and his war wounds lent the place a kind of notoriety and drew in a few other grizzled old veterans who became regulars. Unfortunately Euphelia also become something of a regular. Sarge couldn't cut her off, wouldn't begrudge her whatever relief the hootch might hold for her as she tried to cope with his grotesque disfigurement. Things settled into a sour, bitter downward spiral that even the birth of their two sons couldn't stop.

The field medics and military biosurgeons had said that Sarge Autumn would never be able to have kids. They had given him every assurance and he was being compensated for the loss of his reproductive rights as part of the medical benefits package.

The biosurgeons, medics and all their fancy AI-systems and such were wrong. Maybe it was the virux. Maybe it was something else. The Autumns had had some hoodooers among them, back afore the War, but most of them had been forcibly conscipted a decade ago. Folks suspected that there might have been some sort of lingering hoodoo going on. Who knows for sure?

Whatever the cause or however it happened, Sarge and Euphelia had a pair of twins that first summer out on the island of green egrets. Sarge was surprised and then proud, at first, and Euphelia broke down and had to be sedated and spent the better part of six months in observational custody after she first saw what she had delivered into the world. Euphelia weren't a strong girl, not even when she was still kind of pretty, back before the War. She hadn't coped too terribly well with Sarge's return as a crippled-up wreck of the man she thought that she remembered. The boys were just too much for her. Something in her head snapped and she was never the same.

Sarge took care of his boys. He hired a deaf, dumb, blind wetnurse and saw to it that they were well taken care of by the empathic fungimom. Those six months were quiet, peaceful, a blessing to both the boys and their daddy. Then Euphelia came home. She was drunk within the first hour.

They fought a great deal more often, once Euphelia returned from the asylum-chateau.

She got it into her head that the thing that had come back was some sort of drone or machine, that her man had died in the war. Or at least he ought to have had the consideration to have done so, if not for her sake, for that of his two sons.

Both boys, Johnny and Edgar, were born blind and albino and a bit weird. Euphelia blamed it all on Sarge. She claimed it was all the damage he'd suffered in the War, and that the virux had somehow infiltrated her womb, violated her and tainted the boys. They were always 'the' boys to Euphelia, never 'her' boys.

She left him. Left the boys as well. As soon as she was able, Euphelia Autumn slipped out, bought a ticket for the Pararail and was never heard from again. Most folks were relieved to see the shrieking old haglet leave. Most said goodriddance, but never in front of old Sarge.

Old man Autumn didn't shed a tear. Most men in his place would have. Not him. He got real quiet. Withdrawn. Spooky. It weren't a particularly happy life, not for any of them. But the boys seemed to adjust just fine. If anything, they loved growing up around the tumble-down bar and having the run of the little island and all the waterways, marshes, atolls, sandbars and fishing holes in the near vicinity.

The boys grew up and Sarge grew old and the dilapidated shack they lived in stayed pretty much the same, only there was far fewer fights and a stagnant sort of quiet that just sort of settled over everything. What with the way their ma ran off and that weird fractal-metal arm of their daddy's, people felt pity for the two boys and treated them like mascots around the bar. Eventually people came to appreciate that those two boys didn't need anyone's pity, though they'd surely take advantage of it if given half a chance. They were eleven years old before anyone realized that the two boys saw just fine, only not with their eyes. The locals stopped playing cards with them promptly.

They grew up in that dingy backwater place, those two boys did odd jobs here and there and finally took over as the house band once they were old enough to play instruments that they downloaded and modified from the Public Domain Archives. The boys learned how to use mouth harps, zithers, banjos, dulcimers and then they got ambitious and built a set of powered and amplified Diddey Bows, a theramin and a peculiar type of glass armonica that was based off of a dream they both had had one night.

Johnny and Edgar had a gift for music and for tinkering with mechanical stuff. They built all of their own instruments from scrounged-up scrap they recovered or salvaged from around the Tributaries, always being careful to avoid the notice of the River Marshalls.

Eventually the two boys gained quite a following. People came from all around to hear them play and various Blues players started to drop by to catch the boys at their music. Some sat in with them, others swapped liquor, lies and songs, and still others exchanged tricks of the trade or commissioned instruments to be custom-made by them.

Their daddy was real proud of those two boys. Real proud.

But the virux wasn't completely dormant and finally, for whatever reason, it kicked-in and finished the job it had started all those years ago in a bombed-out apple orchard in Bruxemlough. Old man Autumn went down into the basement for another case of beer and he never came back up again.

The boys went looking for him in-between sets.

They found what was left of the old man, huddled-up in the dim light of a dusty hoverbulb, more machine than living thing, pieces and parts, gears and pipes and all manner of things jumbled one after another onto a growing pile of mechanical junk. They stood there and watched, in that weird way that they have of seeing without eyes, as their daddy was finally consumed by the virux and converted into a mass of peculiar mechanical parts. It was a horrific scene, but these boys were raised amidst the endless recountings of battlefield nightmares by the veterans who were regulars at the bar all their life. It was horrible, it was sad, it was tragic, but they did not get mad. They got busy.

Being the sons of a soldier and natural born musical mechanics, the boys gathered up the remains of their daddy and carried it all upstairs. It took a few weeks of trial and error, but finally they were able to assemble all the pieces that had once been their father into a steampowered organ-boat that they outfitted with all their customized musical instruments and they took the show on the road, or out on the riverways in any case.

If you listen, you can almost hear them now.

(This story is dedicated to Trey.)


  1. Ha! Awesome. I was heading the piece thinking "I love the tone of this. It creates a pleasing tension, dissonance, almost, with the flights of hypertechnological fantasy."

    And then I get to the dedication. Priceless. :)

  2. Nice one. A little downbeat, a little macabre, and yet the pay-off didn't have the edge of bleak horror I thought it would. If anything the story was... sweet. The boys using their poor, long-suffering father as raw material was nicely reminiscent of those momento mori chapels where people use the bones of their ancestors as decorative features.

    "Life is harsh; but it goes on."

    Good stuff Netherwerks.

  3. @Trey: Glad you liked it. Your comment on the Siluroi just sparked something...

    @Chris: Thanks! The Memento Mori angle will definitely figure into the future adventures of these two slightly weird boys...especially when they cross the path of a certain River Marshall. Also, as to the horror-thing...a lot of that stuff is too overdone to be effective or even frankly relevant. Horror needs to transend simple fear or revulsion, and it rarely does...without getting all moralistic and crap. We wanted to take things in a different direction, and from the sounds of things it's working. Thanks for the postive feedback. We really appreciate it. So do Johnny & Edgar...


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