by Michael John Grist
It was gone All Hallows by the Grammaton’s gong when Killin Jack the Malakite mobbed down the last of the Bunnymen. He was stalking spires up the Seasham cathedral that night, hopping from ladder-top to gargoyle round the copper-roofed cloisters, swerving in to the dome-top graveyard in the middle.
The Bunnyman was knelt in a moonlight lozenge midst the marble gravestones, shovel in his hand and a clothy bundle at his feet, white glow bathing his silver fur pristine.
Killin Jack padded cross the open cobblestone courtyard, shadow-casting, watching.
The Bunnyman’s long velveteen ears twitched, and he looked up, saw the approaching muscled bulk of Jack through the rail-dappled shadows, relaxed. “It’s you,” he said.
“Aye,” said Jack, stepping into the clear. “Been lookin you out for a while now.”
The Bunnyman nodded, then looked down at the bundle by his knees. “I’m burying one,” he said. “Last as before me.”
“Must be a bairn,” said Jack, stepping up to the sanctum’s rusted iron rails, shadows striping his granite face. “There ain’t no folk left.”
“Aye, and him the last o’ them, too.”
Jack nodded. “Then we’re almost done, ain’t we?”
The Bunnyman turned, his eyes flashing red in the gates revelatory lamp. “I ain’t done burying him yet. Allow us that at least.”
Jack shrugged. “Fair enough. I’ll wait. Come the dawn it’ll all look the same.”
The Bunnyman nodded. “Aye, I expect so.” He turned, went back to his digging.
A zeppelin flocked with black gulls sailed by overhead, belly nigh on grazing the Seasham steeple. Its klaxon mooring sirens wailed over them, then away, fading into silence round the Firehark debarking spike.
“How many you took?” asked the Bunnyman, eyes on Jack as he lowered the tiny bundle into the fresh peat hole. “After the war.”
“I did my share,” said Jack. “Never bairns, mind. There was others what did that.”
“Now there’s only you.”
“Guess I killed all them too.”
“Aye, I heard that. Ain’t for forgiving, are ye?”
“There ain’t no forgiving while the crime’s still on.”
“Oh aye, crime,” snorted the Bunnyman. “Like it’s a crime to live.”
“For some it is.”
The Bunnyman sighed, shook his head. “Then was bunnies what killed your lass.”
“Lass and a daughter. It ain’t no right thing, outliving a child.”
“I know that,” said the Bunnyman his eyes glazing off in the distance. “I’d do anything for mine.”
Jack shook his head. “Guess you didn’t do enough.”
The Bunnyman stared at Jack.
“Sorry, but it’s true, ain’t it?”
“I would have died for them,” said the Bunnyman, slow and careful. “If I’d had the chance. What about you?”
“I’d have died too,” said Jack. “But it wouldn’t have done any good.”
“Aye,” said the Bunnyman bleakly. “Hell. Won’t make any difference if I tell you, all that’s done now? Famine and a war 5 years gone?”
Killin Jack just watched him.
“Nah, reckoned not,” said the Bunnyman, standing, stretching his long rabbity legs out for springing. “You sure I ain’t got nothing on you?”
Jack smiled sadly. “There ain’t been one that had a thing, not since I was cursed them 5 years back.”
“Cursed,” said the Bunnyman, “aye, seems a right way to say it.”
“So you fighting? Or you had enough?”
The Bunnyman breathed in deep, tasted the air, let it out. “Reckon I’ll fight, like as not. Never been a lie down die sort of bloke.”
“You ain’t even armed.”
“That don’t hardly matter now does it?”
Jack sighed. “It don’t,” he said, “but I’ll go fair on ye and play it the same way all the same.”
“That’d be neighbourly.”
“I always been neighbourly,” said Jack, wrenching the graveyard railings apart, stepping through the twisted iron gap.
“Bury us too, will ye?” asked the Bunnyman, standing his ground. “Wouldn’t do for folk to see us all splayed round the yard.”
“Aye,” said Jack, striding through the graves, “I’ll do it.”
The Bunnyman nodded. Then he flashed claws, bared his teeth, and bounded roaring down the graves.
Jack caught the scruff of his chest, the jut of his chin, and tore his head right off his shoulders. He held both parts up as the blood drained clear, the red light glimming out of the Bunnyman’s eyes, then he set them down on the grass, picked up the shovel, and started to dig.
Come the dawn he was perched on a gargoyle’s head, looking out over the city. The Sun-smelter’s core in the East was smoking up a pally storm, blacking out half the Levi river. Trains shuttled round and about the city bi-rails and land-lines, and down below like ants the first couple of street-mongers were rousing for the days shouting and selling.
Jack sat and watched while the city woke up, picking at the specks of dried blood and dirt on his hands.
After a time, the sun risen up and bright across the roofing, he heard a cry from behind.
He hopped off his mount and paced the burnished copper rooftop back to the graveyard, lit up gory come the light, following the cry. through the railings, past the marble stones, and down by the fresh mounding where the Bunny and his bairn lay inhumed.
A baby bunny head was pushed through the loose earth, yawling. Pink and shivering, long slender ears all hairless and shiny in the morning light, it sprayed dirt in mounds round its strong forelegs until it flopped loose and free onto the graveyard deck, white swaddling blankets left underground.
Killin Jack strode over, knelt by the quivering baby’s side.
“Looks like your pa died for you after all,” he said.
The baby gurgled, and smiled.
Jack reached down and plucked it up.
Killin Jack walked the Slumswelters, shadows hanging like funeral dirges round its bombed out old buildings and half-collapsed statuary, the street-way walls plastered over with long forgotten anti-Bunny posterage.
By a mildewed stone fountain in the center of the Slumswelter square he paused, dropped a cuffed sleeve in the rust-pitted stone bowl, sloshed the water clear of its dusty surface scum, and damped down the cloth.
The baby yewled in the bulging crook of his arm. Killin Jack held the cloth to its lips, and it nuzzled, licked slow, then began to suckle.
Low moanings slurred out from the Shabbath’s guinnell, up top of the Swelter square. Drunken donegones and shabbelry lay out along the walkways. Killin Jack strode the cobbles, ignoring the faint whimperings reaching out from either side, heading deeper into the rubble of forgotten Swelterside.
Round a tumbledown corner, paving slabs collapsed in on the sub-terran stopped up sewers, Killin Jack came to worn stone spiral stairs leading up. He started the climb.
Ten steps up and the Painman spoke.
“Killin Jack,” he called, his burbling voice haunting down from transceivers hung high in the stone staircase. “One step more and I shoot.”
Killin Jack grunted and climbed, eying the crossbow slits in the tubing wall.
“Last warning,” came the echoey voice again.
Jack strode on up, stepping over bone shellings and snippets of leathery skin strewn over the splintery weed-sprung stair-blocks.
“Alright,” came the voice, and then a whooshing thock as a crossbow released and struck Jack in the side. He pitched a little, staggered, then held the baby in closer, covered it with his broad forearm, and kept going up.
There were more swooshes, thocks, but Jack did not stop. At the top he strode an empty corridor, torch sconces limp and hanging loose by single screws, all in shadow but for a red glow round the Painman’s door.
Jack entered the Painman’s room, saw the Painman all white and flinching hung up in his viscous yellow fat vat embedded in the laboratory wall, rows of levers under his hands, leering odd smile on his face.
“I made you too well,” he said, jaw moving under the air-tube strapped to his face, sound pealing out of the amplifying racks hung over his chemical strewn mogrifying laboratory.
“And you’re busy at work on more,” said Jack, pointing to a row of males sleeping and strapped to chassis workbenches, pinioned wrist and ankle, half-opened up at the leg or the waist or the neck. Twisted branches of sinew flued out randomly, held up by various metal clamps.
The Painman swam to the surface of his glass vat and pushed his clammy head over the rim, slipping free the air-tube transceivers. “There’s always them that’ll pay,” he said, voice weaker minus the relays.
Killin Jack nodded, strode the length of the lab, uneven tables either side of him laden down with yellow formaldehyde pitchers filled with various guts, brains, embryos.
The Painman swung his blotchy white body over the vat’s lip and climbed down the ladder to the ground, gobbets of fat splatting over the floor at his feet.
Jack looked up. “You’re losing juice,” he said.
The Painman hawked and spat, then shook the fat free from his arms, rubbed it down off his torso and legs. “I don’t trust you here,” he said.
“I know,” said Jack, stopping by one large man, his ribcage splintered open with a vice, heart and lungs pumping brightly purple through dust. “This one’s got maggots.”
“He’ll eat them,” said the Painman. “He’s a Malakite.”
Jack looked up. “These’re Malakites? You’re building more Malakites?” he asked.
The Painman nodded. “I’m always building somethin,” he said.
Jack reached into the Malakite’s ribbed cage and squeezed the heart until it burst. Blood flumed up his forearm.
“Not any more,” said Jack.
The benched Malakite gave a sigh, and died, organs immediately shriveling to grey and black.
The Painman opened his mouth, closed it. Jack shook his bloody hand free of torn flesh.
“What do you want?” asked the Painman.
Jack un-tucked the baby bunny from beneath his ruffled cloak, sat it snuffling on a vellum shed worktop.
“What’s that?” asked the Painman.
“It’s a baby,” said Jack. “Bunny baby.”
The Painman hobbled his weak white limbs closer, peering over the flax and wriggle of the silken little rabbit on his countertop. “So it is,” he said, then looked up at Jack. “I wonder why it isn’t dead yet?”
“His pa died for him,” said Jack. “Didn’t seem right endin it straight off.”
The Painman chuckled. “That’s some trouble you have then, Jack. How are you going to kill any more when it stops seeming fair?”
“There ain’t no more killin needs doin,” said Jack. “He’s the last.”
The Painman’s eyebrows lifted. “Quick work,” he said. “A whole race in, what, just a few years?”
“I just cleaned up the city,” said Jack. “Might be some in the Sump still.”
The Painman shrugged. “If there is, they aren’t a danger to us now.”
Jack nodded. “Wish the lot of em had just taken that route.”
“Plenty did,” said the Painman, turning over a baby bunny ear, checking the underside. “These really are remarkably soft, you know.”
“He’s a pretty little thing, aye,” said Jack.
“And that’s what the ladies will say, when he’s grown in a few years,” said the Painman. “5 at the outside and he’ll repopulate the city. 6 and we’?ll be mass famining again, I guess.”
“Aye,” said Jack. “They do multiply.”
“Not any more though,” said the Painman. “Thanks to you.”
Jack watched the Painman. “We each had our own way,” he said.
“I could have saved them, Jack,” said the Painman, sad smile on his lank face, looking up from the bunny. “If you hadn’t stopped bringing them to me.”
“You made them sick in the first place,” said Jack. “There weren’t no saving them past extinction.”
“You don’t know that, Jack. They could’ve changed.”
“Like you’ve changed?” asked Jack. “Promising to quit out on meddling, and what’s this, a room full of Malakites.”
“It isn’t the same thing.”
“It ain’t no different, Painman. Eggs is eggs, and bunnies rut. Malakites kill. And you just keep on stirring the pot.”
The Painman smiled. “We’ve had this argument before,” he said. “I’m just doing what I can, to save what I can.”
“You been workin to save yourself,” said Jack. “We’ve been through that too.”
“I’ll not debate you,” said the Painman.
“Aye, we’re past debate,” said Jack.
A moment passed. The bunny baby rolled onto its side, and laughed. The sound echoed weirdly round the mogrifying lab.
“So what do you want, then?” asked the Painman.
“I think you know,” said Jack.
The Painman shook his head. “You promised.”
“So did you.”
“Come on Jack,” said the Painman, taking a step back. “Things have changed. All I’m trying for now is a cure. I swear. I’m not reproducing. I’m not even teaching.”
Killin Jack shook his head. “You’ve lied before,” he said. “We said no more. Malakites, bunnies, whatever. But you keep on.”
“Wait. You’ve got arrows in your gut, still. Let me take them out. You’ll feel different after that.”
“After I gone under the knife? Not this time, Painman. It ain’t meant to go that way.”
“You’ll kill all my Malakites too, won’t you?”
Jack nodded. “Outside this lab, they’re all gone already. S’just me left. And I’m readying for walkabout soon enough.”
“Well take me that way then, too. Me you and the babe, it’ll be like old times.”
“There was no old times no more,” said Jack. “Only you lyin. And buildin.”
The Painman shook his head. “It ain’t meant to be like this,” he said, backing up to the fat vat slowly, climbing up the ladder rungs. “It ain’t, Jack. You don’t kill your pa.”
“There can’t be no more Malakites, and no more bunnies,” said Jack, approaching softly. “And walkabout won’t quit out the machinations of your mind. Reproducin natural was never an issue.”
“It isn’t right,” said the Painman, up the ladder, wet skin sliming against the glass, flopping over the trim and into the lipidic suds. “It isn’t fair.”
“That’s what my lass said about the famine,” said Jack, stalking the fat vat, as the Painman hauled on his face tubules, started up the stream of air and logged into the speakers. “She still died.”
“This isn’t the same,” said the Painman, hanging in the juice, his voice tinny through the transceivers. “You don’t have to. Please. I want to live.”
“I can’t help you with that no more,” said Jack, and punched a hole straight through the vat glass. The Painman’s scream lodged in the transceivers and yelped out until Jack’s roving arm sought out his neck and snapped it clean broke.
Then he stepped back, slicked off the lumpy curds from his massive arms, and turned to the lab. Malakites were growing on table tops before him, wires and tubes and a sussurus of artificial breathing.
Jack walked the aisles squinching hearts to burst until not a one was left. Then he took up the babe, nestled it into the dry bulge of his massive left arm, and left.
Jack stood on the brink of a red-rusted water drum stanchioned out over the Levi river, babe in his arm, looking down at the turgid brown waters rolling by beneath.
“It ain’t the end,” said Jack softly to the babe. “Don’t look at it like it’s the end cos it’s not. Your pa’s waiting. All kinds o’folks is waitin.”
The baby snuggled in Jack’s massive grip.
“Even I got folks waiting,” said Jack, and stepped up to the edge, thinking of the day his wife and child died.
There were dead bunnies lying like tossed weeds on the frozen Levi the day his wife and child died. Tucked under the piereages and mounded round the water pumps, naked, some of them shaved bald, some of them burnt in haphazard pyres.
Jack was walking the banks. The Bodyswell healers line was ragged with black sheets off to his left, a mass moaning rising like smoke from the waiting sick.
Across his back there was a sack-cloth bag half-full with the scavengings of the past two days. Molding crumbs and livery slivers of goose-meat. A thin vial of oil and some salt crustings he’d picked off a dock-side quay ring. A half sprig of squabbled grapes and 3 rotten potatoes.
His head ached and he felt weak.
He walked back down the banks and into the Slum-swelters, moon shadows dappled too harsh cross the winter-bit stone flags. People trudged by to his left and right, some mumbling, some steaming heat off into the night. Others lay still and huddled together against lattice rod huts, rags hung for walls, children splayed round their mothers like runts of the litter rousting for a sip.
Across the square and down Shabbath’s guinnell he walked by the corpse of noseless Mrs. Dimble his neighbour. Her naked blue body was stick-thin and frozen hard to the icy cobbles. He tried to pry her up, but she wouldnít budge.
The air was fresh. Jack breathed it in. It hurt his lungs, and he walked on.
Standing in his home, shelled out and everything sold for food or fuel, he saw Delilah and Mary wrapped up together, Mrs. Dimble’s clothes thrown over their blankets and hay, not moving any more. Frost had drifted up to their feet on the bare stone floor.
There was a crusty hank of bread on the table, covered over with the cornflower blue napkin she’d made for him a long time before.
He sat down, dropped the empty pack. He moved the napkin, took up the bread, and staring at his dead wife and child, numb, began to eat.
The next morning, the Grammaton clock-tower ringing nothing but silence, Jack was out digging up cobbles from the Swelter-square, laying down the last of the wood from his home on the hard brown ground, and lighting a fire.
The Painman watched from the buzzing warmth of his fat vat, windowed out over the fake balconies of his turreted Mogrifying lab. He saw the fire, and Jack dragging out a woman and a child, reverent, laying them on the ground, waiting.
The slow dawn was silent. Jack sat on the mossy fountains edge, stone tribute to some long gone pauper prince. Hours passed, until the sun sat high in the blue-white sky, and Jack stepped to the fire, slat board in hand, and began to dig.
The Painman watched Jack work the ground. It was nightfall again by the time the hole was big enough for Jack to lay the bodies in. He dropped the blue napkin in over, and piled on the dirt. After the dirt, the cobbles again.
Then he sat at the fountainside, stripped to the waist, steam turning to frost on his skin, and didn’t move.
The Painman sent his servants down.
Jack woke up strapped to a table. It was warm, and a golden man with long lank hair and shiny skin was standing over him.
“It’s alright,” said the Painman. “Everything’s alright now.”
It was spring when he learnt how to speak again, started to control his new body, held up on crutches, lolling round the Painman’s Mogrifying lab, cooing babyfaces at the caged animals round the walls.
Later, an evening, time blurring like Jack’s blood mingling in tubes overhead, he was sitting with the Painman, eating thinly sliced pork, looking down on the Swelter-square through rose tinted arrow slits.
“You remember your wife?” asked the Painman.
Jack grunted. He could speak, but he didn’t.
“I think you do,” said the Painman. “You’re looking at the spot you buried her. By the fountain. You had to light a fire. Remember?”
“It was cold,” said Jack.
“It was very cold, that’s right,” said the Painman. “But they didn’t die of the cold. It was the famine that did it.”
Jack took a bite of gingered pork.
“You know the Bunnymen, Jack? Did you ever hear of the Bunnymen?”
“There were bodies at the river,” said Jack. “Dead bunnies.”
“And a good thing,” said the Painman. “A cull, for they were too many.”
Jack looked up, his massive neck smooth and strong. “Everybody was dying,” he said.
“And you know why, don’t you?”
“I don’t remember,” said Jack.
“I made them, Jack. But I made them wrong.”
“Wrong,” said Jack.
“They made too many babies. That was never meant to be the way of it. Then winter came, and there was no food. Because of them, your family died.”
“They killed my wife?”
“And your child. Though they didn’t mean it.”
“It was still cruel,” said Jack.
Painman in the long turret hallway, throwing stones at Jack’s face. Jack batted them away with a massive iron mace.
“They’ll throw worse than this at you, Jack,” said the Painman. “You should remember that.”
“I will,” said Jack.
“They won’t want to die,” said the Painman. “They’re not like you.”
“I don’t want to die,” said Jack.
“Of course you don’t, my son,” said the Painman. “Of course you don’t.”
“Why did you make them?” asked Jack.
The Painman smiled. “I was looking for cures,” he said, “experiments. To help people.”
“Good things,” said Jack.
“Yes, good things Jack.”
“Why do you want the bodies?”
“To fix them, Jack. Cure them. So they don’t hurt others, like your family.”
“They killed my family.”
“They did. And they’ll do it again, if we don’t stop them.”
“I miss Delilah,” said Jack.
“Delilah was your wife?”
“I miss Mary too.”
“I’m sure they miss you too.”
“When will we start?”
“We’ll start soon, Jack. We’ll start soon.”
His first was in the Boomfire Damask quarter, a Bunny lass finishing up a client on the second floor of a wrangling joint named the Yailing Chain. Jack had watched her for days. She had beautiful fur and her eyes gleamed in the dark. She wore yellow bonnets in the morning and a grey scarf in the evening. She smoked Spurgsroot cigarettes on the balcony while her wrangler took payment.
The Grammaton rang in the distance, and the wrangler towed the client downstairs for money.
Jack leapt to the balcony, swung up and over the rail. She stepped out, saw the giant bulk of Jack, raveled over with belts and weapons and leather. Before she could scream, Jack hoisted her beautiful body to his shoulder, jumped from the decking, and fled into the night.
Back at the mogrifying lab, the Painman spent all night cutting her open on his rickety bench-slab, stewing out the jellied bits and pieces that made her alive. She screamed at first, then fell silent, turning white as the blood drained from her. Finally, she died. The Painman dropped her pieces in slop buckets, took fluid samples in little glass tubules, stored, separated, and made marks on a chart, while Jack stood by and watched.
By dawn her body had been reduced to a grisly array of bloody bunny strips, hanging from the dusty timbelry rafters. The Painman at last set down his instruments, yellow skin sweat drenched and weak. He collapsed in his chair.
“Put me in the vat,” he gasped at Jack, who hoisted him like a rag doll, tenderly fed him into the turgid fat, strapped on his tubules and transceivers like a father tending to a child.
“It wasn’t right,” said the Painman eventually, voice ringing tinny through the echo boxes.
“I don’t understand,” said Jack. “I don’t understand why you did that.”
“A cure, Jack,” said the Painman. “I’m looking for a cure.”
“But I thought it was in their heads,” said Jack. “The multiplyin, I thought you could fix it.”
“It’s not just in their heads, Jack,” said the Painman. “They can’t help it. It’s in their nature.”
“Where’s that?” asked Jack. “Is that in their guts?”
“Well is it in their skin?” asked Jack. “Is it in their brain? Is it in their fur?”
The Painman sighed. “I don’t know,” he said.
“So why did you cut her up like that? Why did you make her scream?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” said the Painman. “It’s the only way to help them.”
“It didn’t help her,” said Jack, pointing up at the eviscerated body of the she-bunny. “It hurt her. Now she’s dead.”
“It might help the others though,” said the Painman. “If I can change them, then nobody more needs to die. There’ll be no more famines. Everything will be like it used to.”
“My family won’t come back,” said Jack.
“No, they won’t Jack.”
“She won’t come back.”
“No,” said the Painman, and shook his head.
Jack thought about this.
“I wish you’d never made them,” said Jack. “I wish they’d never existed.”
“But they do,” said the Painman. “And we have to try and fix it. We have to find the cure.”
A moment passed.
“It ain’t right,” said Jack.
“This,” said Jack, waving at the dead bunny pieces, the mogrifying lab, his own distorted bulk. “It ain’t the way it’s meant to be.”
“Jack,” said the Painman.
“If Delilah saw this, she’d scream.”
“Delilah isn’t here,” said the Painman.
“No,” said Jack, stepping up to the Painman’s face against the glass, looming over him, “she ain’t.”
The Painman pushed back into the fat.
“You did wrong,” said Jack. “Making me. Making them.”
“I know,” said the Painman, “I never lied about that. I’m trying to fix it.”
“You did wrong.”
The Painman opened his mouth, closed it.
“I’m gonna set it right,” said Jack.
The Painman coughed wetly, spat out a gob of something black into the roiling suds. His skin was glazing and his eyes goggled weirdly in their sockets. “How?”
Jack didn’t answer. He just stared into the glass at the Painman, slackening in his traces and close to collapse.
“How?” asked the Painman again. But Jack was already gone.
He killed his first that night. Top of the Haversall, a lone bunny walking home drunk. Jack cut his head clear off before he could even scream.
Jack was happy at that. Though he wept the whole night through after.
The next night he killed two.
The other Malakites came for him in the winter. They crept up on him round the zeppelin spike at the Firehark docking rings. He’d already dropped two bunnies trying to board a float out of the city. He was rounding the observation deck when the first bolt hit him in the spine.
His legs fell out from underneath him, the orange glow of the city’s revelatories lurched upwards, his head mashed on the bronze railing stripe, and for a second he must have blacked out. When he came to there were three half-birthed Malakites standing over him, their features run like jelly fresh from the Painman’s vats. Two more fat feathered bolts were sticking out of his chest.
“From the Painman,” said one, and plunged a spear into Jack’s gut. A crossbow bolt flew into his right eye and half the world went black. In the thin gap remaining, Jack saw a chrome scimitar descending. He batted wildly at it, switching the arc so it sank and lodged in his shoulder. With his other hand he tore the crossbow bolt from his eye and thrust it up through one of their meaty jaws, punching up through his skull and killing him instantly.
The others shouted. The scimitar sucked out of his flesh and the spear twisted in his gut.
Jack rolled, snapping the spear off inside his body, grabbed the heel of the nearest Malakite’s leg, and punched through the knee. It buckled back and the half-formed creature dropped him screaming to the ground. Jack crushed its windpipe, snatched up the scimitar from its slackening hand, and came to rest with the last Malakite standing over him, looking still puzzled at the broken spear in his hands.
“But the Painman said,” it managed, before Jack scimitar-swept his legs free from his body and he lopped down to the ground.
“What did the Painman say?” growled Jack, coughing blood. He dragged himself over to the wailing Malakite, but it only screamed, and the sound echoed in Jack’s head like a crying baby, so he pinched the neck shut and the screaming ended.
He lay there for a time.
He faded some, came back again. He saw the moon yellow and grinning above him. He felt the blood leaking out of his hollowed waist, his vacuous eye, the pain coursing through him. He wondered at the thoughts of his victims, as they died themselves. Then he remembered, the Painman had tried to kill him.
And he began to crawl.
It was morning when he reached the mogrifying lab, the night a long memory of cold cobbles and pain behind him. The Painman was sleeping in his fat vat. Jack climbed the ladder, legs trailing useless behind, and dropped into the vat. He pried clear the breathing struts from the Painman’s face, and wrapped a hand round the Painman’s neck.
The Painman woke, tried to scream into the fat. Jack punched out the glass and they flooded out with the viscous fluid, to lie gasping entwined on the laboratory floor. The Painman flopped weakly in Jack’s oaken grip, then stopped, sighed, Jack staring into his eyes.
“I didn’t,” began the Painman, but Jack squeezed him silent. They lay together, Painman’s breaths whistling through his crushing neck, Jack staring. Then he spoke.
“Fix me,” he said.
Surgery lasted three days. Jack held on to the Painman’s neck or arm or leg throughout, conscious while his spine was rebuilt, his guts, a new eye. When it was done, Jack tied him up, dropped him in the puddled bottom of the fat vat, and went to sleep.
A week later Jack woke. He slid off the table and went over to the Painman, feebled and wilting and supping on curdled fat, shrouded with flies.
“No more Malakites,” said Jack, standing over him, voice hoarse with dis-use.
The Painman nodded rabidly.
“You’ll live,” said Jack. “That’s it.”
The Painman grinned weakly. Jack tore his bonds free. Then he was gone.
The river sworled by beneath them, Jack and the baby up top of the water drum, shifting in the warm night wind. Cries from the Bodyswell line drifted from behind them. The smell of hickaberry scones hung sweet upon the air. Shellaby bugs glimmered softly across the far banks.
“Y’are a cute one though,” said Jack, down to the purring bunny in his arms. He stroked its chin, and it googled happily. “Many many lasses you’ll have, no doubt about that.”
The baby turned in his arms, warm little head pressed up against Jack’s chest. Soon it closed its eyes, and fell asleep.
“You’ll see your pa soon,” said Jack.
The river eddied by underneath, sucking at the rust-pitted drum stanchions, rocking up the banks.
Jack bent over, kissed the bunny on the ears. Then he looked up, scanned the spreading city one last time.
“I’m coming, Delilah,” he said. Then he took his last breath, his last step, and fell down to the river.
The thick brown waters of the Levi closed over his body.
Somewhere in the distance, the Grammaton rang out for All Hallows.
And the river flowed on.
Read more of MJG’s SF & Fantasy short stories here.
Learn about his epic fantasy novel project DAWN RISING here.
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