Something Must Break
As it happened Lugtroopers were forbidden from drinking alcohol. It had some sort of neural effect that could be passed on to the Kafta they were linked with. I didn’t really want to get bogged down in the technical aspect of it. Nor would I want someone with a highschool education like Gable trying to explain technology he most certainly did not understand.
In fact Ryan was so concerned about it he chose to use those god awful electronic cigars as opposed to the real thing. Although what in heavens name the effect of tobacco on one of those things could be is anyone’s guess but he wasn’t taking any chances.
I didn’t much care for drinking alone so we decided to skip the formalities and get straight to asking questions. First stopping off to get the latest paper. The headline was regarding some sort of unity rally in the capital and new york. It was in response to the death of the Cyclon boy and a number of terrorist activities down south from what were described as ‘Speciesist groups’. The rally was celebrating the harmony between the different species in the cities living together. It was a celebration of the strength in their diversity. The rally was the freed Kaftas and humans and all breeds in between lead by Cyclon organizers. They marched through the streets and conducted a ritual burning of pre-alien literature. Anything that denoted aliens as wicked or capricious in some way as a device to divide the races. They chanted in unision ‘Kill the speciesist’ as some of the group got a little rambunctious. They began pulling out and beating those that wouldn’t leave their places of work and march with them. But the paper made sure to highlight that this was a tiny minority of the events that occurred and those that commited violence were motivated by a devotion to love and unity.
Unfortunately this time Ryan insisted on accompanying me on company business. Which I opposed as he was just a contractor and not actually in the full employ of the company. But he told me he’d feed me to his lugger (which thankfully were kennelled for the time being until they so needed them) if I ever spoke to him again. That pretty much ended every interaction we ever had from that point on.
The bar was your standard border town saloon as might be described in some trashy novella you buy in railway stations. It of course smelled no different from the jail cells, being the source of the drunkiness and general filthiness. The bartender was a thin man who looked rather young. But on closer inspection his forehead was very lined and there were deep lines around his eyes signifying all the late nights. He had very light hair over tanned freckled skin which made it seem like his light hair almost glowed or wasn’t there. It was odd and apparently everyone called him ‘Whitey’ because of how pale his hair was and of course because his first name was in fact ‘White’. I cant say the folks here had much of a creative imagination. Which is surprising as most of the greats like Shakespeare found themselves almost continually soused.
I felt bad for the chap as Ryan went about torturing the poor sod almost immediately, he’d broken two of his fingers before he even asked him his name. It appeared he’d let me talk to the sheriff purely because he was incapable of having a conversation with someone without first making them swallow their own teeth. I almost shuddered but for the efficiency of the brutality. And when he finally did ask a question McGruber tripped over himself to implicate his own mother in misgivings.
It seemed to be a policy of the Lugtroopers to display such needless barbarism for barbarism’s sake. Brutuality was it’s own end to them as they were soldiers after all and must have seen this land as a hostile territory which in some respects it was.
But what could I have done? Argue with him and lose some of my own teeth and anger the people charged with defending me. All for some local yokel that would have drunk his teeth away eventually anyway and who’s face I would hopefully never see again. So I said nothing and pretended not to care.
I noticed some of the whores who worked upstairs were watching on the stairs through the bannister beams and their fingers. I wondered idly if he might move on to them if he didn’t get what he needed from McGruber, I prayed I didn’t have to see that. Thankfully McGruber cracked, had been cracked from the beginning but was just waiting for a question he could answer. A name he could give us, another set of fingers to break. That was always what deals like this were about, deals with the devil were always about swapping places in the torturers chair. If not you then someone else, it just took McGruber a while to realise that all he had to do was give us the name of his replacement and it could all be over. He’d be free from physical pain which is akin to pleasure but what about his soul? A much greater burden thinking about the next person in the chair.
The person he implicated has a store in town, a handmade furniture store. Apparently he was seen in the area around the saloon at the time the Cyclon boy was killed. The carpenter doesn’t actually live in town but has some sort of ranch further out. Unfortunately the boy didn’t know the exact location.
We thanked the poor lad and I assured him I’d have a doctor sent over, possibly a dentist too, if the town had one.
I left that foul scene certain that I wanted to end this little adventure as soon as possible. As little time spent in the company of Major Danko Ryan seemed advisable to my health. So we set out to the store the barkeep spoke of at the other end of the small town. It was little more than a shack that was falling down. I thought to myself this was a woodworker and I wondered why then the shop itself was in such disrepair. But isn’t that always the way? Barbers having the worst haircuts, barkeeps the worst at handling liquor. It made some sort of ironical sense to me.
But on further inspection through the slats of the windows it appeared as if it was abandoned. It was dark inside and every piece of furniture inside seemed to be covered in a tarp or a thick layer of dust. It didn’t look like anyone had been in in years.
Ryan impatiently lifted the door off it’s hinges with one hand. Those exo-skeleton suits seemed to give them enhanced strength. it was remarkable then that he didn’t kill the barkeep McGruber. What great restraint he must have shown not to just cave the boys skull in with one punch. Something about that worried me even more, there was something deeply unsettling about the efficiency of the violence I had seen. Not a blunt and wild hammer hammering away but instead it was a fast and eager scalpel cutting and cutting. A focused refined savagery only a soldier could wield.
He tossed the door aside and it fell into the dust with a wumping whooshing sound and he entered cautiously with a knife he drew from under his duster.
The lugtroopers weren’t fond of using their guns despite packing a wide arsenal. Their training was such that using guns when it was unnecessary could put their Kaftas in danger of cross fire. And considering the link between the two a misplaced shot could be very costly to both creatures. And considering the low population of firearms due to their illegality it was unlikely they would face an armed conflict. Even if they did, the Kafta and the exo-skeleton was more than enough to face armed attackers. There was a time of levity on the train where they weren’t playing jokes on me when they told me about their weapons.
They told me in great detail that their outfit was actually started out as form of riot control. Formed in the first era to combat food rioters in that trying time of which I was too young to remember.
Thus their weaponry is concussion based and only semi lethal to lethal, fear and viciousness was their best weapons. They had electrical weapons that worked like the control rods of the Cyclon but also used pain to incapacitate an attacker but could be used to kill. As with the knife they told me ‘You can butter bread with it or cut off someone’s head’.
It was logic like that that made these soldiers especially dangerous.
I then thought that their motives might be different from my own. It was comforting to think their mission might be just to capture Phineas and not kill him. Maybe then he could get the help he needed. If he was really alive and truly at the heart of all this.
It then struck me that I wasn’t even sure Phineas had anything to do with this murder. What evidence was there? If I could just find and talk to him we could clear this all up. He could sign his resignation formally and this whole ordeal could be over without liability falling on the company and me.
I waited outside until Ryan gave me the all clear. It was as I suspected, abandoned. I walked around the creaky floorboards looking at the tarps and the counter and the wood that was bare covering my face with my coat for the dust. Ryan stomped his way towards me sheathing his knife on a slit in his suit around his midsection and then carried on out.
The workmanship was actually rather good, it surprised me the shop was in such disrepair. Each piece was lovingly crafted and had a distinct rustic aesthetic that some Cyclon would pay through the nose just for someone to produce some artificial copy of. I had seen furniture just like this but it was more uniform and more plastic and sanitized, soul less. There was something different about these pieces, they hummed with energy. The love and time and effort poured into them almost made them glow. Elevating them up from just being lumps of raw wood into a masterful creation that someone would prize.
Most of the furniture in the capitol was made of metal or hardened wood pulp made from woodchips and processed to look like real wood. And then you’d pay designers to paint woodgrain on them to make them look authentic.
It seemed almost laughable looking at this one chair and knowing all the parts of it probably came from one tree and the cushion and fur from one animal. I felt silly almost having my breath taken away by a chair.
I had a look around the storefront. It was fairly uninteresting but there was a back area that had some woodworking tools and an office made to look like a living room with a mantle. The room was bare most of the tools taken, I assumed they were stolen. The bench still had some old wood shaving on it but not a lot else, some loose nails on the floor and some wood dust. I looked through the drawers of the work table, and found much of the same, just odds and ends no one would bother stealing.
Feeling at a loss, facing the fact we’d have to spend what could be days or weeks scowering the countryside for this man if he even still lived I slapped my hands on my hips and sighed loudly. And then I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It appeared that I’d glossed over something while looking around the room. The mantle in fact was not bare, it was just such a benale common place thing to see the picture frame there it had hardly even registered. Why would it? Having no formal training in detective work I was hardly the most analytical of sorts.
The picture frame had a grainy old black and white photo of what looked like a farm house with a barn behind it. Not much to go on but I noticed a particularly distinctive mountain range behind it and I was sure I saw a similar alignment on the train. It was possible if we followed that ridge we might come across that house and then god would have to have mercy on the poor fellows soul.
It took a few days to find and a few very uncomfortable nights in McGruber’s saloon. Not because he was angry or we thought he spit in our food but because of the embarrassing deference he showed us. Bowing and scraping, treating us like we were foreign dignitaries carrying gold, frankensense and mur across the desert. For those few days in the middle of nowhere we were treated like the Maharaja himself.
I kept my promise and had the best doctor in town look him over and he assured me that McGruber would live. But whether he’d walk or eat the same way or ever again or have the use of his hand back was yet to be seen.
Maybe he was just thankful to be alive, as if he’d been through some traumatic event and bonded with us somehow. Despite the fact we were the ones putting him through the trauma. I believe there’s a psychologist in Stockholm that talks of such an occurrence but his name escapes me.
Every time he spoke with the new lisp we’d given him or hobbled over to us with our food and drink. I felt a horrible pang of guilt despite not actually harming him myself. It didn’t seem to bother Ryan or the others at all, to them it was like a business transaction and this was all just a job. Torturing McGruber was just a button push, or a trigger pull, or a lever operated. It would have been easy for me to see their cruelty as just raw savagery and see Ryan and his men as evil. But such a simplistic term didn’t seem to cover it. They were akin to accountants in hell counting bones and this was just another day for them. They took no pleasure and no displeasure from it, it was just a job.
I remember standing outside that farmhouse and thinking how little I wanted to go in and how little I wanted to see Ryan ‘question’ the craftsman inside. I begged Ryan to let me talk to the old fellow but he wouldn’t hear of it.
So I just stood outside wishing I never found the place as Ryan ordered half his team into the barn. He would lead the other team into the house to bring out the old man and I just stood there with my hat in my hand like an idiot standing next to the horse I bought in town. The others travelled on those little toy hover bike things with those Kafta fellows in the pod on the back in some kind of sleeping state.
I just waited there until I heard the leader of the first team shouting out that the barn was clear and then the house and then I felt something. An eye maybe, then a glint of light from the raised ridge behind the house and then I heard a noise like a crack of thunder in the distance. And then a hot feeling that built into a searing pain at the side of my head and I dropped the ground wailing like a child.
“My ear!” I screamed.
Then there was another crack and the dirt moved violently, then another in nearly the same spot around my feet. I heard the men inside the house and the barn cry out. “Take cover!”
I don’t know how long this went on as time passed and I felt faint and my head was ringing with the pain and then I lost consciousness.
When I awoke again after no telling how long I was out. I was lying face down on what I think was a cow skin and turning my head there was no doubt this was the old craftman’s house. The furniture looked a little more lived in but it was the same skilful rustic craftsmanship. The type that couldn’t be reproduced by a machine but a man’s hand with great care.
“Well if it isn’t sleeping beauty” A familiar voice said.
I squinted as light rushed into my eyes and it hurt quite badly, the light and the ringing in my ears and the dulling cold pain on my ear. I heard a clicking as Ryan shut off his torch he shon in my eyes and then he slapped my face to see if I was truly awake and said “Ah you’ll live”.
I started to raise off the bed rubbing my eyes and touching my ear which was still in great pain. I instantly winced and looked at my fingers and they were red with dry blood. I cautiously and slowly fingered my ear like a blind man lacking any reflective surface. I felt a cold shiver of shock as I could feel quite a sizable portion of my ear- missing.
It behoves me to record this but I did vomit quite a lot. It was a shock and the feeling of revulsion was just too much for me to take and I did vomit over the side of the bed. It felt grotesquely awful even more so to hear Gable laugh as mockingly as he did. It was very unpleasant but I feel my circumstances were not the worst in my room. I straightened to a sitting position opening and closing my eyes and rubbing my forehead. As my vision started to unblur I could see a rather worse for ware old man sitting in a chair.
I presumed it was the old man we were looking for otherwise he had the worst luck in the world to just stumble into our path and looked sorry for it. He was horribly beaten but in the same restrained fury as with the bartender, broken and bent but the force was applied with surgical violence. Thus he was still alive and still conscious although his eyes were sealed shut. His breathing was shallow and wheezing and Ryan intermittently checked his heart rate and blood pressure in between sterile beatings. The old man only letting old muffled yelping noises of air escaping his lungs, he didn’t cry like the bartender or curse his mother for birthing him. He waited silently through the pain waiting for the questions to start. He was a tall grey sort but looked bowed and bent in the chair with his hands tied behind his back and all that blood on his white shirt.
“Name” Ryan asked without inflection.
Ryan punched him solidly in the face knocking him back against the chair and jolting his entire body. He then leaned forward and checked his pulse with his two fingers checking his own with his other hand.
“Full name” He asked calmly.
Ryan hit him in the lower sternum this time and the man doubled over as far as he could straining against the cuffs locking him in place. Stein and Gable stood by the man’s side to keep the chair in place and stop it from tipping over. Socks watched silently from her corner nursing her Kafta companion who seemed to have some sort of injury.
As far as I can tell from the following day as they related the story to me if only to boast; the old man had them dead to rights in a perfect ‘kill zone’ as they called it. All he had to do was wait for them to stick their heads out or starve them out. By some misfortune to us the old man was out hunting along the ridge when he saw us approaching and decided to watch us and wait for the opportune time to strike.
They said the reason he shot me was not to kill me but it was in order to wound me. In so that I would call and draw the others out of cover but fortunately for them I fell unconscious almost the instant I hit the ground and didn’t make a sound.
He continued to bear down on them with the long rifle and they held cover pinned down in the house and two out in the barn. Having no long range weapons they had no means to fire back nor would they have the initiative to do so as the old man had the high ground. That put him on top no matter how many guns were on him. And he managed to hold it for a good few hours as they recall but they managed to draw his fire into one point trying to wear out his ammunition. All the while they moved their kaftas in a sweeping arc in two direction the long way around the ridge. Trying to come up behind him which is how they caught him. His firing pattern had slowed so they presumed he was almost out but he got off one shot at Sock’s Kafta before they incapacitated him and brought him back.
“You put up a good fight – Old man” Ryan said flatly. He paused and breathed in before hitting him hard and controlled in the ribs. All his force measured, never hitting too hard, just hard enough to get the old man’s attention and keep a constant steady stream of dull pain. “Where did you get the rifle from?”
The old man breathed in and said “I made it.”
Ryan hit him in the jaw and said “It’s very nice”. He looked over at it resting against the fireplace with his jaw cocked to one side perching himself on the edge of the man’s dining table. He then looked back at the old man and said “you make one for anyone else”
Ryan hit him centre mass right in the sternum much harder this time and the old man let out a strangled ‘oomph’ noise.
“You seen this guy before?” Ryan put his hand back and Gable put the photo in his hand and he put it under the old man’s bowed head.
The old man struggled to open one of his eyes and look. He took a quick peek and closed his eye again and said “No”.
“Oh come on you didn’t even look at it” Ryan said as he hit him low again. He put the photo under the old man’s head again. “He’ll look different now, his face was scarred after this picture was taken, a man with a scarred face come through here?”
The old man paused and breathed in and said “A dude with a scar?”
“Yeah I seen a guy with a scar.” The old man said as he raised his head to look up at Ryan “I’m looking at him right now.” He tried to laugh but nothing but a hoarse rasping broken noise came through and he started to cough up blood.
Ryan’s temper flared for a brief second but he pushed it down breathing deep and he slammed his fist into the side of the man’s head and calmy asked again. “Have you seen the man in this photo”.
“Yeah I seen him – said his name was the devil – and he’s coming fer you.” The old man tried to laugh again.
Ryan pulled his fist back to hit him again and I chimed in to stop him asking “Is there anywhere near here we can stop and rest?”
The old man looked over at me through a narrow slit in his eye tilting his head to the side and Ryan too looked at me coldly.
“Rest?” The old man said.
“Anywhere near here we can stay the night, get a drink”
The old man licked his lips and wheezed his breath in and said “There’s a whore house due east, a town not too from that, you mightn’t try there for what ails ya.”