Just for Halloween, here's a new brand new story. It's a bit of an Edgar Allen Poe / sci-fi / steampunk mashup. Hope you enjoy it. Let me know.
Draw the curtains, put down the light and curl up on the sofa...
The Surgeon's Knife
We were thundering through a chaos of lashing rain and pummelling wind, dragged by the horses whose pounding hooves and enraged snorts sounded so close it was like we were one single creature running insanely from the deathly darkness surrounding us.
The carriage hit an uneven stretch of road and threw us around in our seats, reintroducing the pain to my stomach. I turned to the carriage window and lifted the dirty crimson curtain to look outside. The unseen rain spat across my face. I could see nothing but the enveloping, encroaching, inexorable darkness. It was a night of madness and terror. I dropped the curtain and wiped my face with my handkerchief.
There were three of us in the carriage, or should I say four? Three human and one ‘of human’. Representing the human race there was myself, the man Biggarty and the quiet gentleman in the corner; from the other category there was the thing devouring me from inside. I was on my way to Edinburgh to see what the doctors thought about it. It was a last resort. I knew they were quacks and butchers to a man. No doubt they’d want to slice me open to take a look inside and I’d probably die of infection or blood loss. Maybe that would be a good thing, at least it would save me from the torment of being slowly eaten alive. Either way I was terrified. I had concluded this was the last carriage journey of my life. I doubted I’d ever return home.
Biggarty was talking again, this time about the price of sugar and its market fluctuations during the past eighteen months. He was so obsessed with his own thoughts he was oblivious to the world around him - the weather conditions, the darkness, the bumps in the road, my illness and even the disinterest myself and the other passenger were showing in what he had to say. Rather unfairly the third passenger hadn’t stirred for a long time, leaving me to bear the brunt of Biggarty’s discourse alone.
I’d never met Ponson Biggarty before this evening but after only a couple of hours in his company I knew more about him than I did about my closest friend. With his fluffy ginger moustache and his bulging green waistcoat he sat there candidly revealing his thoughts on a startling variety of unrelated subjects. He suddenly bored of sugar and started to talk about venison, then quickly switched to inform us of his views on local politics making a link I couldn’t begin to fathom.
The sound of the horses’ hooves changed from a pounding rhythmic thud to a chaotic clatter as we reached the cobbled streets of a village. Moments later we pulled up abruptly. Biggarty leant over and shook my hand, saying something about being pleased to have met me. He threw open the door, letting in a maelstrom of wind and rain, plus a little light.
‘Get out man!’ I said impatiently.
The wind gusted in, blowing Biggarty’s hat off his head. He laughed for a moment then he was gone, slamming the door behind him.
There was a cry from the coachman and we were off again, racing into the night. With Biggarty gone and nothing else to occupy myself with, I began regarding my remaining companion with much more interest. He was sleeping in the corner of the opposite seat, wrapped in a grey great coat with the lapels pulled up over his cheeks and a soft brown hat over his eyes. In fact I could see nothing to show who he was or what he looked like.
I began to miss Biggarty’s inane chatter now it was gone. It was the kind of evening when your imagination could run away with you if you didn’t have other distractions. The shaking of the carriage and the regular music of the horses’ hooves rocked me into an almost hypnotic state. The thing in my stomach ached and I slipped a hand under my waistcoat to comfort it. My mind concocted images of my visit to the surgery the following morning, a tableau of gleaming knives and gleaming eyes, all eager to cut me open to see what lay inside.
An errant gust of wind flicked open the little curtain, startling me back to life with an icy cold draught and throwing a shard of moonlight across my sleeping friend in the corner. I saw he had moved a little and the sleeve on his right arm had risen up above his gloved hand revealing a rough patch of skin. The flesh wasn’t right. It was blistered and diseased. I recoiled into my seat. Smallpox! Then I gathered my senses. No, it wasn’t smallpox. I’m no doctor, thankfully, but I could see the skin damage was more extensive than that, almost like a bad burn. But I’d seen burns before and I knew it wasn’t that either.
The flap of curtain fell closed again, plunging the carriage back into darkness. Fear took hold of me. In the darkness my strange companion seemed to be moving. I reached for the curtain and pulled it aside once more. In the dim light I saw his face!
I screamed in terror.
He was only inches away, leaning towards me. He had two piercing yellow eyes, no nose, no ears and a wide laughing mouth. His inhuman, hairless pink face was made from the same blistered flesh as his arm. What alien creature was this? Had the devil come for me already? Had I died? Had I gone to hell for my self-obsessions, my self-pity and all the other vanities I had indulged in during my short and tragic life?
I roared in terror. ‘Let me out! Let me out!’
The creature darted forward and grabbed my wrist with a puckered, blistered pink claw.
‘You are afraid?’ he said in a metallic, mechanical voice that seemed to emanate from within him.
‘I’m petrified,’ I said shakily.
‘Don’t be.’ He let go of my wrist and sat back. He slowly opened his overcoat and light flooded the carriage. Beneath the coat was nothing like I had ever seen before. Instead of flesh and blood, the creature’s torso was a machine, all glittering lights and dials and buttons set in a frame of shining steel. Half of him was a living creature, the other half was mechanical. The light from his body was so bright it stung my eyes and lit the entire carriage as if it was morning.
‘That doesn’t help,’ I croaked.
‘Oh, of course not,’ he replied, closing the coat. ‘I just wanted you to see who I am. I have nothing to hide and I mean you no harm.’
‘Whether you mean me harm or not, I will remain terrified.’ I gathered my wits and fought back my fear. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m not of your world,’ said the creature. ‘My ship was damaged and I was stranded here some time ago. But now I have the necessary parts to get me home again.’
‘A sailing ship?’
The creature cackled. ‘A space ship.’ He jerked his head to one side, lifting a claw to his face as if shushing me. He looked frightened. He wrapped himself up in his coat and retreated back into the corner of the carriage.
‘Whoaa!’ roared the coachman outside. The carriage pulled up quickly and I was almost thrown from my seat. We stopped. I heard voices, all shouting in self-important tones. The door was torn open and a soldier stuck his head into the carriage. He was young and fit and arrogant, with a ridiculous waxed moustache and a large plumed hat. Rain dripped from his hat onto the floor of the carriage.
‘Horrible night’ he barked irritably. ‘Who are you? Who is that?’
‘Who are you looking for?’ I asked.
‘Something strange,’ said the soldier. ‘A creature, a thing.’
‘Escaped from the circus?’
I was about to point to the creature but the thing in my stomach jabbed at me, reminding me it was there, reminding me I didn’t wish to see anyone suffering, alien or not. If the doctors were happy to cut me open without reservation, I could imagine what they might do to my travelling companion. He didn’t deserve that. I had no reason to believe he was evil. He was just different. And there was nothing wrong with that. If there was room in the world for Ponson Biggarty there was also room for this poor creature.
I scowled at the soldier. ‘There’s no one here but myself and my friend Biggarty.’ I tried to sound as dismissive as I could.
The soldier looked at the creature in the corner, starting forward as if he was going to unmask him. Then he stopped and thought better of it. He swore under his breath and ducked back out of the coach. He didn’t close the door and I had to lean out into the driving rain to get it. I pulled it closed and moments later the coach was moving again.
The creature uncovered himself and looked at me with an expression I assumed was a smile but was quite terrifying, his great mouth widening and its edges curling in on itself grotesquely.
‘You helped me,’ he said in his metallic voice, which I now realised came from his mechanical torso rather than his grinning mouth. ‘Thank you.’
‘They would have hurt you.’
The creature trained his golden eyes on my own. ‘You surprised me.’
My laugh was cut short by a stab of pain. ‘I surprised myself. But I’m ill and I don’t want to see anyone come to harm.’ I shrugged. ‘Tomorrow I’ll be dead so what do I care?’
‘Why?’ asked the creature, leaning forward.
I opened my coat as he had done. I pointed to my stomach where the thing lived. ‘You tell me.’
The creature reached inside his clothes. He pulled out an opaque device with blinking white lights. Then he leant forward and pointed it towards my stomach, shining a bright blue beam onto me.
‘Of course,’ said the creature. He put away the device then slipped off his seat to the floor of the carriage. ‘Close your eyes,’ he said.
What happened after that was a blur of glinting metal and searing pain. The creature tore open my waistcoat and pushed aside my shirt. Three mechanical tentacles came shooting out from his torso. One was a blade. Without warning it sliced through my flesh. Blood spurted across the carriage, hitting the wall. I screamed, at first with fright but then with pain. I knew I was going to die. I tried to fight back but the creature pushed me back down into the seat. I saw a second tentacle rise up in front of me like a cobra. Then it struck, reaching into my stomach through the incision it had made, feeling around inside me. The pain was excruciating and I nearly passed out. Then something was torn from me. Other tentacles treated and stitched and mended. Then they were out of me. I looked down and saw the gaping wound in my side, still seeping blood. One of the metallic arms moved over the cut, spraying some foul-smelling liquid that sealed the skin back together leaving nothing but a thin white scar.
I looked up. The creature was throwing something out of the window. He sat back down opposite me.
I couldn’t move. I was frozen with shock.
‘You should have no more problems,’ said the creature.
‘What do you mean?’
The creature pointed at my stomach and I felt around for the familiar pain. It had gone. The thing that had threatened to take away my life had been removed. My body was my own again. My life was my own again. I was cured.
The creature lifted an arm and banged loudly on the roof of the carriage. The coachman roared to the horses and the carriage slowed.
The creature opened the door. ‘Goodbye,’ he said.
Then before the coach had even come to a halt, he leapt out into the night.
I shouted my thanks but it was too late for him to hear me.