Mother of Crow
By Jenny K. Brennan
Chapter 0 – the day after the day afterLast updated: November 13, 2019 at 8:50 am
Mal’s raspy exclamation drifted across the dusty floor and drew Bird’s attention for a moment. It wouldn’t stick though, the attention. It never did stick for long. It kind of lingered in the periphery like a sticky cloud of curiosity that Bird didn’t much care for. He refused to get distracted. He had things to do.
There was something living under the floor. He was certain of it. It wasn’t very likely. Right now, he had his head lowered to a slight gap between dusty floorboards, twitched his head this way and that, listening hard. It was something to do. Mal wouldn’t let him touch the tools, so why bother? But he couldn’t stop himself from glancing at the mechanic and the stupid machine. It took him three seconds to get over his pride. “Again?” he said through his mechanical voice box. Despite his voice being artificial , the large black bird nonetheless managed to convey a certain tone. Sarcasm? But it was not quite that. It was something between awe and utter mockery of Mal’s abilities. Mal himself couldn’t hear that specific note so he answered Bird without a trace of rebuke. “Yes, as before when I had it. I have it now. Just the other way. Like it should.” He grunted and moved some thing or other to attach it elsewhere or maybe back to where it was, Who knew.
“Right,” Bird said. He curled his restless feet around a roundish rock that happened to lie beneath his feet. He spread his wings best he could considering one was badly healed and crooked. He balanced atop the rock for all of three seconds before it rolled away from him. He dropped to the dusty floor and immediately forgot the rock. “Got it.”
“Don’t mind if you do,” Mal said and pushed a button. Something sputtered foul grease and a spark tore through the air toward Bird who jumped back, screeched, and retreated.
Mal wiped soot from his face and stuck his head in the machine insides in front of him. “Definitely got it,” he muttered. “Got it backwards. That’s what I’ve got. Got it turned about-somewhere. Somewhere here.” Mal’s voice, a distorted echoing muttering from where he stood with his head and one arm inside an automaton carrier. The machine was one of the two that Gabriel had brought from his late mother’s machine park in Dead River. Since its last desperate-and in the end pointless-rush along the train tracks, carrying Mal and Bird to what they thought was a rescue mission, the carrier had started acting up. Bird and Madame-the other automaton in their company-had managed to coax the difficult helper robot back along the train track and into one of the empty estates littering the desolate countryside. As soon as they’d maneuvered the machine into the stable, it had turned itself effectively deaf and lame. That’s where it stood now.
Mal hadn’t seen anything broken. But things that didn’t run were broken and therefore by definition fixable. And that is what Mal did. He fixed things. If he had to adapt and adjust and modify things to make that happen, that’s what he did. He pulled himself out of the carrier and scratched his chin thoughtfully. He placed a hand on the top of the carrier and kept it there as he walked around it. He placed both hands on the rotating disc that didn’t rotate. He traced the edge along where blinking lights were supposed to blink. He traced the bottom edge of the carrier, with a foot until he found the place . He gripped the disc harder, drew back his foot, and kicked the carrier. A clunk sounded, then a hiss. Mal lowered his head, still holding on to the top of the carrier, and listened. The hissing stopped. After a moment, a second clunk. The lights around the disc came on one by one and the disc started turning. After an introductory squeal it settled into its slow rotation with a whispering. With one ear toward the sound, Mal gave it a few seconds and then he nodded. He made his way around the machine and slammed the access hatch closed. It locked with a sharp snap. The carrier twitched, shuddered, and stilled. Mal took a short step backwards. Then another. He stopped and stood still for a long moment. He rubbed his chin with forefinger and thumb permanently blackened by machine grime and grease. Suddenly he threw his arm back to point at Bird who stood watching. The scruffy black bird walked to stand next to Mal who swung his arm to point to a spot several paces to the side of the carrier. Bird skipped to the indicated spot. He stared at the carrier and after some consideration moved farther away.
“Ready?” Mal breathed into the stillness.
Bird didn’t answer. Perhaps he was wondering why he was the one that always got the shitty, stress-full, and potentially actually almost always-potentially fatal jobs. But if he did, he didn’t give it much weight in the big scheme of things. He trampled the floor and glared at the carrier. Bird willed the idiot thing to be nice.
Mal took one more step back and nodded at Bird.
The space that they were in Might be called a barn and from the outside very much looked the part. A sturdy wooden structure sized to accommodate up to twenty horses in stalls at one end of the long building. The other half sectioned off for storing carriages, tack, and other necessities. At the very end was a small room to house a resident caretaker of the animals and all that they required. Above, a loft still half filled with hey. Two large doors, one on either end of the barn opened up to the entire space. One could see from one door to the other, inspecting all stalls at a glance. A smaller door for a single mount and rider, a man-door for the fine peoples at the front, and a smaller door for the resident groom were now closed tight. At the back , another door allowing access to a dung heap. The pile of horse-shit had been unused for some time before the world sundered. Weeds covered the mound and even before The Mother had decided to put the world in stasis, it had been little more than fodder for nature to have its way with the area behind the barn. The barn appeared to have been converted to machine hall in a haste. Although all stalls remained, they hadn’t hosted living horses for some time. The hey loft had never been emptied and any hey remaining, left to turn to mold and rodents to care for. Various bits of machinery had taken over where horses had once lived without consideration of suitability. Few creations resembled anything useful.
Now, at one end of the stable, near one of the big pair of doors, now open to a still morning and a view of a flat landscape of withered grass, sorry looking trees, and in the distance, a dull sheen of metal rails stretching away to vanish in a dusty blue haze of horizon. The morning was quiet. Silence didn’t mean it was safe. Bird would have preferred the doors to be closed, and hammered shut, and bolted, and… he didn’t know what could keep the Guardian patrols from finding hem. But whatever would do that; that was what he wanted. Bird clacked softly and rustled as he waited for the signal.
The carrier was a simple model and its name described its purpose perfectly. It carried things. It had little finesse, plenty of raw power, and was simple to operate. The workhorse of the age, it came when called. It could be loaded up with what two or three pack horses would have managed before the remaking and phantomthergy became the new way of things. Once packed, the carrier could be led by sound to where it needed to go. Walk ahead of it and it would follow your voice or any sound you decided to use. Like a whistle. It came to you if you spoke to it. In extreme cases, carriers were placed at the tail end of a train. As the train departed, the carrier followed. A well maintained and calibrated carrier would stop at a safe distance from its target where it would wait to be unloaded. Somewhere in this carrier’s life, that safety margin had been lost. Its variable speed had also at some point become constant. The new default speed was simply run-as-fast-as-possible. Mal had not thought that would qualify as a priority job. When Bird made a sound, the carrier would come. Bird would have to step away fast. It wasn’t ideal, but it had served them well enough so far.
Mal held up three fingers and Bird tensed. Mal folded one finger at a time and when Mal’s hand was a fist, Bird screeched. As the noise bounced around the stable walls, he jumped back, turned, and ran. The carrier came to life. It hummed, hissed, and raised its huge legs just as Bird got out of the way. It stomped and launched forward. Instantly, at full speed, it rushed across the floor. It punished the old wooden floor, running to where it needed to be. Away from the noise, not towards it. It ran toward the wall, and then through it. Withered wood planks tore and creaked , groaned in resistance for less time than it took the mechanic to realize what was happening. Splinters and years of caked on dust exploded in a roar of machine and stable wall attempting to become one in a cataclysm of misunderstanding. Then the carrier was through the wall, took one final step into the glaring light outside where it stopped. It stilled as suddenly as it had come to life, awaiting further instructions. The blinking censoring disk turned in and machinery clicked and settled in a cloud of dust and steam carrying the unmistakeable smell of burned corn husks. It waited.
Bird looked at the mechanic but left his voice box inactive for once.
Mal turned his head toward the gaping hole in the wall. He coughed and said, “All right,” he picked at some imaginary something stuck to his face and groped at it with ragged fingernails, “so, clearly the listening part works now. And the crashing and breaking shit in its way functions admirably.” He rubbed his face again.
“Yup,” bird said, “so it’s fixed now, that?”
Mal was silent for a moment while pulling vigorously on his lower lip and took a few slow quiet breaths as he considered Bird’s question. “Fixed,” Mal finally said, “why, certainly. Fixed absolutely. Did you think..?”
“Didn’t think nothing, I,” bird quickly said.
“Good, good. Because…,” Mal’s words trailed off into tense silence. He directed his hard-to-read empty eye sockets to the spot where Bird had stood a moment ago, which limited the effect of his awful stare somewhat. Bird was grateful.
Mal continued, “Because I know what I’m doing,” he concluded with an eye-less glare at that empty spot on the floor.
Bird shuffled back a little bit more, careful to not make a sound. However, his efforts were wasted when he spoke. Trying to come up with something to say that would actually be helpful he said, “Uh-huh!”
Mal’s empty eye-sockets pinned down Bird’s new location and turned to it like a whispviper registering vibrations from a careless spindel invading the viper’s elaborate trap.
Bird had seen a whispviper once, didn’t much care to experience it again, And right now Mal reminded Bird very much of one of the creepy remade snake species and he couldn’t stop a shiver from rustling the tips of his feathers. He carefully shuffled sideways, out of Mal’s stare that was not actually seeing at all. But it didn’t matter that Mal was blind. The dirty human didn’t even have any eyes left. Bird still felt that viper stare and didn’t much care for it. Sometimes he wondered about Mal. Momentarily perhaps, fleeting certainly, but he did now.
Mal focused on the new empty spot on the floor for another few moments as bird held his breath. Then the mechanic turned away, Suddenly he grinned and swept the floor around him with a foot to locate his pile of tools and other junk he claimed to need. “Okay, you little shit. You go outside, and chase that thing back in here,” he said, “out there the bloody finch-fuckers will see it and we’re all pigeon feed.” He picked up a sack of corn and waved it in the approximate direction of the stunned black bird. “Go on now, cracker-head, I don’t have all day.”
Bird, pondering for the second time that day how it was that the almost certainly fatal jobs were given to him without fail.
Mal, understanding bird’s hesitation, said, “You look like them, I don’t. They won’t kill one of their own. Now, get!”
Bird opened his beak to protest. Mal knew right damn well that Bird was the prime target for the guardians. He had escaped, had evaded them numerous times, had even managed to get the great white Owl blown up-well, it was Gabriel’s doing mostly but Bird had been helping- and Owl didn’t just want Bird dead. He wanted Bird deader than dead hundred times over, and butchered and plucked and broiled. That was how safe it was for Bird to go outside.
But Bird didn’t say any of that. He got to go get. They didn’t have all day, after all.
But they did have all day as it turned out. And most of a weeks worth of wasted time. Three days into their retreat into the house, Clack’s nerves were starting to wear thin. There was only so much planning and preparation one could do. And he needed to do, not wait. To find some shit to deal with, not pick lint off of horse-hair overcoats.
He wasn’t sure who’s idea that was. Morette most like, wanting to teach him some lesson that remained incomprehensibly idiotic to start with, impossible to complete, and that had taught him nothing. And that simply because he had let an audible sigh escape him in the middle of the brain-numbing exhibition of expensive trinkets filling the luxurious drawing room. So, Clack and Mal both decided to escape the ladies to some place more suitable for their uncivilized mannerisms.
The ladies, who, in the sudden comfort of a mansion once owned by some long dead and obscenely rich minor lord related to some distantly royal cousin, had made themselves right at home. With a fully functional Butler class house robot, they had no immediate wish to continue across a deadly countryside. There were fine clothes in silk and fur and who knew what other fancy garbage women found so much pleasure in. Clack couldn’t honestly say he didn’t enjoy the sights of young Jesse and the more world weary Lady Morette cleaned up and nicely dressed, painted, combed. Oh, indeed he was a man. But a man that had always been careful to stay out of the way of women in their true habitat. Mal, ignorant and disinterested for other reasons, was just as pleased by Clacks invitation to escape the clouds of face-powder and ruffle and lace.
Gabriel had less choice in the matter. Still not in Jesse’s good graces, Gabriel’s suffering look when the two older men abandoned him in the main house, stayed with Clack who could sympathize. Mal had no such gentle considerations regarding the young man. As Jesse’s father, Mal knew his daughter would either forgive Gabriel and make sure he didn’t forget that she had. Or, she would not forgive him and remind him constantly how much she had not forgiven him. The result was the same in the end. Gabriel was screwed.
What exactly Gabriel had done to deserve Jesse’s ire, Mal wasn’t totally clear on. He wasn’t sure Jesse knew herself. Mal had spent most of the last two decades in a semi-permanent catatonic state. Gabriel had brought him out of it somehow during the trip south. Mal didn’t know if he was grateful for the awakening or not. That was still up for debate in the back of his mind. He was however thankful for missing the last few years of his Carnival wife’s decline and gruesome end. The little information Gabriel and Jesse had deigned to reveal to Mal regarding those last days of The Fat Lady’s life, led him to believe that Jesse blamed Gabriel for the explosion that finally blew up the Amazing, the glorious, the indestructible…. Mmm, the Fat Lady had apparently gone insane rather than snapping out of it as Mal had. Or, as Gabriel had let slip, “She found her mind and she didn’t want it.” The young man had shrugged helplessly and glanced at Jesse. What gruesome destiny had befallen his almost-wife, Jessica’s actual mother, Mal didn’t think he needed to know. But if that was what Jesse was angry about, Gabriel would have a tough time with the girl. For now, he was behaving. Jesse was courteous and allowed him to exist and adore her. From a proper distance of course. Mal smiled to himself and shook his head. “Leave home when you step out the door,” his old pop had said many times to his grandson. “The women will do what they do, and they’re ain’t nothing you can do about it. Fishes don’t care how they’re cooked. Their problem is you, and that’s in the river, nowhere near the kitchen.”
“Leave home when you get out the door,” Mal muttered and turned his attention to Captain Clack, who paid no attention to Mal’s musings of the past.
Clack had his thoughts firmly removed from the main house and its female majority. He shook his head in disgust, looking into the first stall just inside the one set of large stable doors. “This is what those rich bastards did,” he said to Mal who took a sudden interest in one absurd contraption he had nearly fallen over when following Clack through the door. As this was the opposite end of where Mal and Bird had worked on the carrier just that morning, the space was confusing and littered with stuff that might just be the death of a stumbling blind man. He decided to stand still and let Clack do the initial inspection.
Clack glanced at Mal and decided that the man was dangerously close to a protruding iron pipe wrapped in coils of burnt wiring. He pulled Mal by the arm,, grunted at his friend to stay put, and turned back to the machine he was trying to make heads or tails out of. He muttered as he moved stuff this way and that. He said, “When they didn’t remake all their servants, they built crap and tried to make it work.” He grunted and pulled at a jumble of thin copper-wire arranged around a glass pipe sticking out of a block of what looked like a bundle of bones. From a sizeable animal like a cow or horse. The rest of the contraption remained unrecognizable for Clack. It looked like something a child might build out of a pile of trash. When Mal’s hand trailed down the glass pipe towards the bones, Clack put a hand on his shoulder. “I wouldn’t touch that, old friend,” he said.
Mal hesitated with his fingers still on the dusty glass. He nodded slowly as if considering, maybe imagined what Clack considered too horrible to touch. He turned his empty eyes to Clack and rubbed his unshaven face with his free hand. “I don’t doubt you, Captain,” he said and turned back to the machine. He hunkered down lower and found the bundle of bones. He trailed the length and heft of the stack and did a quick calculation of the collected bones. He examined a few of the joints and the strings binding them together. He shuddered and stood up, wiping his hands on his trousers. “Horses,” he said, “maybe as many as five. All lower front legs as far as I can tell.” He let his unseeing eyes roam the row of stalls. He breathed slowly through his nose for a long moment as the stillness of the place told him clear enough what would be in the other stalls. Clack cleared his throat and words failed him. He stepped away from the stall, uncomfortable in the truth. But a moment later he shook it off. As in a mutual agreement, they both turned their unease into grim smiles. They would let it rest for now. Mal placed a hand on Clack’s shoulder and motioned him to continue along the row of stalls toward the storage half of the barn beyond. Mal said, “Don’t concern yourself, Friend. Perhaps you could find some comfort in that I myself is not forced to look at the abominable creations.” He chuckled softly and appeared to shrug off some internal vision.
Clack guided Mal to the open space that began at the end of the last pair of opposite facing stalls and stopped. A large tub stood awkwardly atop a poorly constructed wooden support. Next to the tub, pushed against a scarred wooden wall. The Most of the rest of the space looked like a metal butcher shop in the middle of dinner preparations. Organized chaos filled tables and shelves. With exception of a thin layer of dust, the floor was clean, tools that had not been in use hung in tidy rows. As Clack spoke quietly to Mal about the workshop and the space surrounding them, light started changing. “We’re losing light, old friend,” Clack said. He stared through the open double door, grimacing. A dusky blue gave way to an unsettled green that would shift to various reds and violets as the sun went down. Saying that they would be robbed of light was a misnomer as nights never gained the soothing darkness the world had seen for innumerable nights since the dawn of time and planetary arrangements. After the sundering of the fundamentals of whatever it was that kept life on earth evolving, growing, cycling through seasons, and did what living planets did, darkness was no more. Clack had no more understanding of why the skies turned into coloured chaos than anyone. But it was so. Light turned from sharp dusty blue to an eternally unnatural sunset. A transition to night that defied sense.
Mal, back in a familiar space, made his way to the carrier and placed a hand on its massive bulk. As a precaution Mal had sent Bird to the loft to bring down as much old hey as he could get his beak on. Mal wrapped the top of the carrier so that it covered the sensor. It muffled the sound enough so that a normal conversation wouldn’t trigger the sensitive circuits. Shouting would bring it running, but talking was safe.
Clack glanced at a ragged hole next to the repaired carrier and frowned. “Was that hole there before?”
Mal pursed his lips and buried both hands in his pockets. Showing surprise when he said, “No, I don’t believe it was.”
Clack stared at Mal who said nothing more. He peered through the new hole and pushed at a loose board. It hung by a nail and Clack’s probing hand made it let go and clatter to the floor. “Why, isn’t that strange,” he said.
“Indeed,” Mal said, mildly interested but with a remarkable lack of concern.
Clack watched Mal for a long moment. “Remarkable.” He joined Mal at the carrier and sighed. “Strange indeed.”
When Mal said nothing, Clack said, “We’re truly losing light, my friend. Perhaps we should join poor Gabriel before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?”
“To late to hinder the poor boy from becoming domesticated beyond repair.” Clack grinned. But his face turned serious and he said, “I do prefer to not have to walk across the property in that….”
Mal knew what Clack meant and didn’t blame the scarred soldier for feeling uneasy. Mal had seen the new night sky but once. That was shortly before he had no eyes left to see it with. The very night when the guardians tore them from their sockets in preparation for his remaking. A remaking that in the end failed. Mal had escaped the guardians thanks to Captain Clack and his men. Shortly after, Mal and Clack separately lost their senses as the shift in the world caught up to them. The worst of it had happened over the next couple of months as water withdrew, human minds broke, mechanical minds malfunctioned, and societies collapsed.
Mother of Crow, who few realized was more than a religious icon, had abandoned them all. That’s what Clack believed. Mal had no reason to doubt.
He shook his head. What was then, was in the past. Gabriel thought he could find this elusive Goddess … and then… Then what? What ? The foolish boy had in his head was anybody’s guess. It was what it was. The night sky was something he didn’t want to consider. And truth be told, he preferred the starlit sky in his memories.
“If you say so, Captain,” he said. He patted the carrier on one of its storage compartments. “I suppose this bastard is as ready as it will ever get. So we might as well try to get a good nights sleep. While we can.” He turned to Clack. “Gabriel is still set on moving on tomorrow?”
Clack nodded. “Presuming he can persuade the ladies to leave.”
Mal grimaced. “The boy is an odd one,” he said, “but for whatever reason, we follow the kid where he goes. He is the only one that truly thinks there is more to this fucked up world. That there is something to do about it. Somewhere,” he waved his hand in a vague gesture encompassing something somewhere to the South, “out there.”
“To the South. That’s all he says.” For a moment Clack wondered how the hell Mal knew south from any other direction. But he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know. So he started towards the door, waiting for Mal to follow. Before continuing, “But if that is where he thinks we should go,” Clack shrugged, “that’s where we’ll go. Mother help us.” He glanced back at the brand new hole in the stable wall and grinned at his friend. “You are such an awful liar, Soldier. I trust you will tell me the story one day.”