I stayed no longer in the city than was necessary that morning, departing shortly for the truer green of the collectives by the usual conveyance. Fortunately, something about the bestial chug of the coal-driven engine, with its dark blue smoke rising into the pewter sky, and the tawny glissando of sun-bleached grass whipping by the observation port, soon brought me out of my sanguine mood. Or perhaps I was simply reminded of my first two trips into the countryside. Both had been by rail, and each time I had returned successful, with signed confessions and murderers in tow. If I could eventually accomplish the same with this latest case… Well, as my less than sainted mother used to say, you took your happiness wherever you found it, because sooner or later, it was bound to run out, like pinches of sand in the throat of an hour glass.
My companion in the otherwise empty coach this afternoon was no child despite his stature, but one of those poor unfortunates who had come to our more pleasant climes from out of the toxic east; a confectioner by trade if I was any judge of the olfactory signatures emanating from his sample case. But when I tried to engage him in simple conversation, he refused to answer in anything but the tersest of manners, even as he continued to hold the newspaper up close to his face, as if the latest news were of imminent importance. Of course, with each additional question, his heart began to accelerate more and more, and I could sense his growing discomfort on a number of different indices, somatic and otherwise.
“Bound for Treehaven myself,” I said, determined to press on. “After a brief stopover at Terricula. Perhaps you might recommend accommodations or an eatery? From the security tags on your satchel, you appear to be a frequent traveler.”
Rustle of newspaper as he turned the page. “Truth to tell, I sell sweets,” he said, still looking down, his voice as painfully constricted as his torso. “And I’m returning home, such as it is, which is where I’ll eat and sleep.” If only for a moment he seemed to struggle with the lurid spread of pictures beneath him; then shuddering, he reached for his sample case. “But I suppose if you’re hungry, I could probably accommodate you, though most of the pieces I have remaining are broken.”
Belatedly, I now believed I recognized him. “Ah, then: you’re the candy vender from M-station. I recall seeing a horde of children clustered about you, I think.” Yes, indeed: on hindscry, there he was, besieged by a phalanx of limbs, the striped shirt beneath his waistcoat winking in and out of view, although he himself remained still largely hidden. “Interesting line of work, all things considered. I mean, as boys ourselves, we were always being told tales about night bogeys haunting shadow and dale, looking for sweeter-tasting children. This was during the first wave of evacuations, of course. You’re probably old enough to remember the rigid rationing–” (hard to tell if my companion was really as old as he looked or merely afflicted with the premature wasting that afflicted so many of his kind) “–and how scarce both raw and refined sweeteners were, especially after the state apiaries were plundered. But even as children, we thought most of these tales were the invention of the tithe-takers, and meant to discourage hoarding. Imagine my surprise when one of these not so imaginary night creatures attempted to disguise himself as a wild ape when I was first coming up through the ranks. Even more clever, he stalked no killing field, but rooftop parapets, as if winged. At least until I forced his auto-da-fé.”
“O-ho,” said the confectioner, repositioning his sad little hairpiece, which had started to slide. “So you’re one of Pastorius’s inquisitors. I should have known from your nosing about. Me, I live in a displacement slum and struggle daily to earn my honest nine-tenths, and yet apparently I’m still under some sort of suspicion. Meanwhile, your hardened criminal types continue to roam about free as birds, killing and torturing. Case in point–” tapping the newspaper, with its inflammatory headlines “–this poor young woman from South Wind.”
“To name a victim is to humanize her. So let us do the same for Thea Gold,” I responded, her image materializing before me, all girlish pigtails and promises. “And rest assured, sir, the Inquisitor’s office is doing its best to discover who or what killed her. All we otherwise ask is that honest citizens do their civic duty and report when they’ve seen anything untoward. Given, as well, your occupation–“
Strangled harrumph of disagreement. “Yes, you see so much of the world when you’re towered over by grabby brats every day. On the other hand, in the men’s stalls, it’s not uncommon to hear a bit of news being bandied about or even a scurrilous rumor or two, though I politely turn a deaf ear to all things political, you understand. So I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t heard your little trollop might have been attempting to steal valuable ag secrets by, er, sharing her body. I mean, look at her. Tell me she’s not every farmboy’s fantasy.”
I had little knowledge of farmboys’ fantasies, so I could not contradict him with any authority. Instead, I said, “There’s also the notion that the victim was seeking to establish contact with growers of certain illicit botanicals,” I told him. “Unfortunately, it’s as false as your suggestion. Thea Gold was simply what she appeared to be–a music student here on cultural exchange. Apparently, one day, tired of the city and its stifling regulations, she decided to take in a bit of country, evaded her escort, and wound up horribly, horribly murdered.”
Outside the port window, the fields of tall wheat had thinned and yellow cylinders of corn were now beginning to rear their drowsy tassels, while off in the distance I thought I could see irrigation equipment stalking the skyline, changing grids. According to my watch we were now two hours into the rural sector, which meant, if the train was on schedule (and smart engines seldom weren’t), it would soon be time to disembark and officially begin my inquiry. But first I had to conclude what serendipity had delivered into my hands.
“I assume all your permits are in order,” I said, as the train announced its coming stop and began to decelerate. “Perhaps if your previous offer stands then, I might take a carob or two if the price is right.”
“Here,” said the salesman, opening up his satchel. “Help yourself. With my compliments, Inquisitor. The foil wrapped ones are especially delightful.”
“No doubt,” I said, as the train finally chuffed to a stop. Only when I’d stepped down from the last rung and thanked the locomotive for a safe trip did I scry up the latest bulletins and learn further about the sugarplum killer, whose victims included five crook-limbed boys found floating in a stagnant cistern, all with half-digested marzipan in their stomachs. Fortunately, the telltale I’d placed in his sample case meant that this bogey would be picked up at the next stop, before he could claim a sixth or seventh.
As I began my walk toward Scarrow’s lodge, it was not to him, but the five zeroed ghosts of his victims, that I whispered, “Sweet dreams, lads. You may now rest in peace.”
Eventually, I resolved, so would the ghost of Thea Gold.
I found the patchwork guardian in a field of cucumbers talking to a gaggle of jackdaws. While the black birds preened their glossy feathers or cocked their heads first left, then right, he continued to hector them in chirps and caws, cautioning the winged sentinels about typical marauders they might expect to see in their flyovers, naming, I believe (I knew only the rudiments of beastspeak), other birds, rabbits, mule deer, assorted rodents, and scavenging hordes of insects.
“You’ll have to excuse me another moment or two,” said Scarrow, sensing my approach, though he yet to turn and visually apprise me. “Zeeb and his brother here are trying to decide if they really saw a swarm of locusts or were simply dreaming about dinner.”
“Caw caw tweet,” he continued through clenched teeth. “Caw rheet caw. Pay attention you stupid, dirty, trash-eaters—” This was followed by more ear-splitting remonstration, and Scarrow thrashing his arms so frenetically I would not have been surprised to see him leave the ground, as if caught in a dustspout.
The birds replied with their own brief cacophony of protests. Then: Whoosh! Of a sudden there was a sharp explosion of wings and Scarrow’s dark charges departed skyward, scattering in soft parabolas.
“The brains of birds,” he said sadly, shaking his thatched head. “It’s a wonder they can fly and shit at the same time.” Having lost a bit of stuffing in his arms, Scarrow stooped, retrieved as many strands as he could grasp in his gloved hands, then began to plump himself back up again. “Now to the business before us. Are you named or numbered, Inquisitor?”
Given his feathered network it was not surprising he knew I was coming (I had my own intelligence, after all), but knowing what I was took some ratiocination. “The former,” I clarified.
“Then let me bid you welcome and good tidings.” Whereupon we exchanged the proper, legally-mandated, information. Said he shortly: “I hope that as your given name suggests, you’re not the mendacious type. Bizarrely, however–especially if you’re a student of coincidences, as I am–your name can also mean ‘one who lives at the pasture.'” Beneath the rood burned into his golden forehead, a twinkle now appeared in Scarrow’s zircon eyes. “You know what this portends, don’t you, Inquisitor? For all the straw and blood that separates us, we might actually be brothers.”
As the first smile in quite some while stole over me, I said, “You are a mechanism of some erudition, Master Scarrow. And I thank you for the imparted knowledge. But between the birdsong and the onomastics, you don’t perhaps happen to remember a visitor that might have stopped at your agstation about a week ago? She would have been accompanied by an escort.”
A nod from the topaz-colored guardian. “They arrived at the same time as the desalination engineers. Yes, I remember them well. I’m also aware the chanteuse came to an untoward end in the forests of Treehaven several days later. Sad to think that this might be how the other protectorates think we treat our visitors.”
Ticking off my talking points: “Anything unusual strike you about Miss Gold? Did you have any sort of extended conversation about anything in particular?”
Toying with his floppy hat, Scarrow seemed to think about this for a few seconds before he responded. “Not really. We talked mainly about farm life. Apparently, she grew up in some sort of agrarian commune in South Wind. She also told me that in addition to providing nutrition, rain, and sunshine, it was important for me to talk to my crops. Said conversing with plants and flowers brought us down to their levels, where simplicity dominated. I assured her that I dialogued with most everything in my sector from taproots to honeybees, although the languages I used did not always contain words or strictly formal grammar.”
“And her escort?”
Motes of straw flew like pale sparks from his shaken head. “Typical pesky type, and frequently underfoot. Might have been from the new vig-2 line. Very agile, with prehensile paws. He frightened quite a few of our cats.”
Under a growing dusk, the evening’s first crickets were beginning to stridulate, while over toward the granary night hawks chittered and dived. One, the other, or both, were almost certainly reporting to Terricula’s chief guardian.
Retrieving my badge, with its mirrored and counter-rotated duplicate sigil: “You know by whose authority I interrogate you, right, Scarrow? Have you told me all that you think I might deem important?”
Touching his forehead, the patched man did not hesitate. “I swear by the firebrand that both birthed and will ultimately consume me that I know nothing further, Inquisitor. Would you like me to recite the oath of citizenry?”
“That won’t be necessary,” I told him, clasping him by his prickly shoulders. “Brothers do not lie to brothers.”
After I uplinked my report we talked about the wild success of the farm collectives and how they were the envy of all the other protectorates. Life, he maintained, was good here if you liked hard work and nature’s seasonal rhythms. He also told me that his henchmen would be eating soon, and could offer me a simple stew of orzo, cranberry beans, and corn, but hungry though I was, I thought it best to move on.
“Be well, Scarrow,” I told him at the gate. “From my perspective you run a fine operation here.”
“May the Protector of us all go with you on your onerous task,” said he, waving a stick arm.
All the way out, and back to the main road, I was followed by two blackbirds who circled me in lazy hieroglyphs above; no doubt they contextualized my movements, even if readable to a single learned man of straw alone.
After a brief, but frightening, stop at Arbor Vitae (apparently you no more asked for cider there than a cup of blood), I decided to doze out under the zodiac sky, where cloud shadows chased the moon like long lost relatives, and I shut myself down to all but oneiric transports within.
But it was fragments of these very dreams (post–noyade, my ear to Mother’s cold wet breast) that haunted me the next morning, as I awoke to the syncopated sound of pounding. About me the world was wreathed in luminous fog, but otherwise eerily silent, with no descant of bird or bug. Only as I gradually waked did I realize that the fog was no stifling caul of the afterworld, but smoke, just as the pounding was not my mother’s restored heartbeat, but the metal sound of axes biting into hardwood. Groggy, but by following the noise, I was able to relocate the access road and follow it through the ghostly, ash-tinged, miasma to the camp of the wood burners.
I asked for their headman at once and found him at the edge of a giant fire pit, shoveling moundfuls of rich black loam atop a pyre of burning wood. Evidently he’d been at it a while; most of his grillwork was covered with soot and of the four letters that constituted the name of our homeland on his chestplate I could make out only the zeta and the omicron. Below us the smothered wood smoked and crackled, and if I understood the process correctly would soon undergo the conversion to charcoal. Though the air was chill and damp, the rising heat was not of the pleasant variety, and for once I envied the metal colliers their cryo circuits.
“I believe you’re already aware of my auspices,” I told the mechanism, flashing my badge. “Do you have a preferred mode of address.”
Continuing to shovel. “Not particularly. Since the purge of identity, all of us simn are numbered. But if you wish, you may call me Quinque-oh. As cogmeister of the charcoal generators, I am allowed some minor individuality.”
“So be it, ” I said. Just to be on the safe side, however (since the simn had no bio-indices I could measure for deviation), I passkeyed my way into his programming, ensuring he could not prevaricate. “According to the work detail you filed two days ago, your crew came into contact with a young woman named Thea Gold from the trade protectorate of South Wind.”
“Yes,” said Quinque-oh tonelessly. “She was lost, she claimed, despite being escorted. Then again it was a stormy night with much lightning so perhaps the links were frozzled. We were on standdown because of the bad weather, otherwise there would be recordable footage. I was the one who powered up to address her concerns.”
“Other than asking for directions, these should not have been numerous,” I noted.
Quinque-oh shot a beam of infrared into the smoke-wreathed pit, then checked the readout on his wrist pad. “She was hungry, but wanted none of the fish oil or alcohol we use for lubrication and fuel. A bit of water from the retorts slaked her thirst. While she drank, she expressed some curiosity about the nature of our operation.” Checking another part of the sepulchral fire, then recording its volatiles: “There was also the one question about whether we produced bone char here. In South Wind, she claimed, it’s used to process the sugar in their beets.”
I felt a trickle of sweat roll down under my collar. “Your response?”‘
Indicating the stacks of dried cordwood in the near distance, the metal man said, “I told her the truth. That we burned only good hickory and elm here.”
“She seem satisfied with that?”
“I am programmed only to toil,” he asserted. “What makes your kind tick-tock is beyond my comprehension.”
Punctuating his testimony, a plume of sparks erupted from the burning mass below; as he threw more dirt upon it, I turned and stood watching a dozen of his metal cohorts fade in and out of the corridors of smoke and tree, fire and greenleaf; watched as blue flues of sky filled with a delicate ash.
“For what it’s worth, it never bothered me that your kind sought an upgrade in legal status,” I told him finally. “Souls, on the hand, you’re probably better without. Not when you’re programmed for undying, questionless servitude.”
“You should know,” said the begrimed automaton, unblinking in the heat.
But by now I was about to faint from a combination of hunger and thirst; I therefore prevailed upon the headman for some of the same water Thea Gold had drunk, munching between swallows on the last of the candyman’s carob. After which I asked Quinque-oh to escort me out of the burning grove.
His last words to me were spoken at the entrance to the camp: “May the God who is denied us watch over all your further endeavors, Inquisitor.”
Heretically, I might have wished him the same, but I knew his recording circuits were on, so instead I made some inane comment about rust, then retook the road for the last leg of my journey.
Much to my surprise, however, by the time I arrived at Treehaven in the late afternoon, several developments outside my ken had taken place. You remember the cloud shadows I saw outside Arbor Vitae? It turned out they’d been military balloons, transporting a unit of the constabulary to the murder zone.
“While you were in transit, sir, an arrest has been made,” explained a burly sergeant as I was conducted into his tented presence. “Thanks to a forest ranger’s good luck we now believe we have the degenerate who raped and killed the South Wind girl.”
“He’s here now? Alive?”
“Oh very much, sir. Come see. I’ll take you to him.”
As the sergeant and I advanced over a well-worn forest path that was only occasionally overgrown, he said, “You’re from around here, I understand.” Ducking beneath a heavy limb of oak, he seemed almost indistinguishable in his uniform from the verdure.
“Ancestrally,” I replied, “yes. My mother’s people were from similar haunts. Hence our designation in the Genealogies.”
Face shiny with sweat, he grunted. “City-boy through and through. Not much for the leaf system of toiletry myself, if you know what I mean.”
The path soon debouched into a small, woodland meadow rife with hellebore. Here we joined the half-dozen men clustered about a makeshift cage that had been assembled from raw lashed saplings; inside a filthy, fetid, twig-matted figure with disarrayed hair and torn beard lay crumpled on the dirt floor, naked save for only a simple loincloth. But when he saw us reach the near periphery, he immediately sprang up, grabbed the bars that contained him, shook them defiantly, and roared with a long, desperate, urgency.
Poking him back with a stick was a young ranger with a bruised face; as I would learn when introductions were exchanged he’d been the one who’d discovered the wild-man’s den. “We calls him ‘Painter,’ because he likes to smear the bars and hisself with feces,” he explained shortly. “At least when he’s not eating it.”
“I’m getting the full read,” I told him, making sure I wrinkled up my nose. “Believe me.”
While the ranger continued to poke him again and again with the stick, the wild-man refused to back off, despite several jabs that pierced his skin; were he not uncivilized I would have called him fearless.
“He has a conscription tattoo on his arm, sir,” said the sergeant. “Apparently, he’s a deserter from South Wind. Totally gone in the brain. Took a good six of us to get him into that there cage. We all got the bites and scratches to show for it, too.”
“And you believe he has the capacity of mind to do what he allegedly did? Not so much the forced coupling, of course, but the nasty bit involving the nailing and the tree? Where, for example, did he get the metal spikes?”
“He’s a scavenger, sir,” asserted the ranger, finally backing away from the cage. “I found the remnants of the vig-2 in his lair. Plus his scat’s all over the deceased’s body from what I understand.” He looked to the sergeant, who nodded. “As for a hammer, any decent-sized rock would do.”
Mentally, and almost beyond my volition, the most terrible of the post-mortem pictures came up; and once again I saw the dead violated girl hanging from the tree, her bloody feet all but gnawed down to the talus by forest creatures in the three days she remained undiscovered.
“Good work, ranger,” I said distantly. “I’m sure there’ll be a commendation in this for you.” Taking a few seconds to clear my thoughts then, keying the right processes: “Open the cage, please, sergeant. I’ll be taking responsibility for the ex-soldier from this point on.”
“Frankly, sir, I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,” said the burly sergeant, frowning.
But by then I’d done what I had to, and masked it as the witchery it wasn’t, although the end result was the same.
At dawn, like a ribbon of sunlight, the great road below threaded its way back toward the capital and its verdigrised domes. Given our vantage point in the balloon’s gondola, I was reminded of the first, last, and only time I had seen Thea Gold alive. This had been at a special command performance she’d given for Pastorius and the Fanum. She’d closed her beautiful set with this uplifting little song about optimism and personal hope. Now that I was finally close to confronting her killer, perhaps her ghost was getting ready to fly out of the abyss and join the very birds she’d sung about, taking wing up, over, and beyond the iridule that leads directly to Heaven’s door.
Once again I stood before the great and terrible figure who ruled us.
“In a world gone increasingly insane, we are both admired and hated for our bounty,” further exclaimed Pastorius, his face floating in the blue haze like a planet. “This is why the other protectorates and city-states are constantly accusing us of this or that atrocity. They want to sully our reputation, to justify their potential crusade against us. In fact, as you’ll finally conclude in your report on the death of Thea Gold, she and her sisters in martyrdom–believe me, we now know that a good many more of her kind will turn up over the next several days–have been sent here on suicide missions designed to make us look bad and ultimately to sanction our being invaded. Nothing fires up the ire of the body politic more than allegations its female citizenry is being debauched by unsavory foreigners, eh? This, as I will soon argue to the Fanum, is why we must stage our own pre-emptive strikes. To beard the lion in its den, so-to-speak.”
“Except that none of it’s true, father,” I said, shaking my head. “And I won’t file a false report.”
Patented flare of disgust, followed by the pronounced smell of ozone. “Tsk-tsk. You ungrateful whelp. Or have you forgotten? When others advised me to burn you at the stake, I took you in and raised you as one of my own.”
“And in return I’ve served you faithfully,” I argued. “Without reservation. Like a son. And perhaps didn’t ask the questions I should have. But now you’re talking about madness on an unprecedented scale. And killing innocent young women in the process.” (I did not have the nerve to say women like my mother.)
Phantasmally, the giant head vanished, being replaced by a pair of arms. “My hands are clean as mountain snow, Inquisitor.”
“Yes, but only because you had your proxy do the dirty work. All four paws of him.”
More pyrotechnic razzle-dazzle as the disembodied head reappeared, and someone who reminded me more of the stepfather of my youth laughed deeply. “Indeed,” he chortled. “Cherchez le chien, as they might say to the northeast, across the former border. Horny little brute, too. Always humping my leg. Unlike you and your kin, I guess he preferred to take his pleasure more than once every Hallowmas eve. Of course, he had no scrying powers to charge up.”
“It also seems he had a passion for carpentry. How long did it take your craftsmen to come up with the prehensile paws? Or the new soldier line?”
Transitioning from violet to orange-red haze. “Not particularly long, actually. Both are iterations of the latest technology. These are progressive times, after all. And there’s no longer any telling what marvels the new day may bring.”
“Perhaps,” I said, as every cell in my witchborn body began to tingle. “Then again, perhaps not.”
Though I thought I remembered differently from my boyhood and even being held by him, Pastorius, out of fear of assassination, now no longer allowed himself to be glimpsed in the flesh by anyone–but I knew where the machinery that sustained his image could be attacked, and now did so, and as the special zoetropes guttered and strobed, and true smoke emerged from behind the arras, all manner of bells and alarms began their horrid knell.
A fine, ringing valedictory, I thought, fleeing the chamber.
Time at last to leave the emerald city for good.
For a while I thought we were being followed by two, high-flying, crows, but when I tried to hex them up, I saw that they were only some sort of mirage, a reflection off the burnished road, like sundogs made of sepia. Or perhaps they’d been called back by Scarrow. Either way the reprogrammed Painter and I were now free to continue onward. Tomorrow, if Quinque-oh and his kind were willing, we would begin the insurgency. Tomorrow, we would begin to take back our homeland, purging it of all that did not belong.
Robert Borski’s writing has appeared in Analog, Asimov’s, F & SF, and Strange Horizons. He lives in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.