The Immorality Engine
The soft loam sucked at his boots, thick and oozing, as if trying to pull him down into its slick, waterlogged depths, down amongst the corpses and the coffins and the dead. Newbury shifted, looking for somewhere even remotely dry to stand. All around him the ground was clotted with mud, made worse by the incessant rain that pattered like a drumbeat upon the brim of his hat. Mist, rising from the warm earth, curled around the forest of listing headstones, clinging to the trees and shrubs and casting the entire scene in an eerie, ethereal shroud. Figures moved like shadows, all dressed in black, their pale faces hidden behind veils or hands.
Nearby, crows were picking at the stringy flesh of a dead fox beneath the shelter of an ancient oak tree. Newbury watched them with a grim fascination.
Around the huddled group of mourners, aperimeter of uniformed bobbies stood like ghostly sentries, half-visible in the vaporous morning, there to ward off roaming Revenants and other unsavoury things that loomed unseen in the shadows.
Graveyards such as this one had become the hunting ground of the soon-to-be-dead. Newbury wondered if perhaps the Revenants felt a kinship with the recently interred, or whether it was simply the lure of warm bodies that drew them in; people gathered in a quiet place, unsuspecting and too lost in their mourning to notice the shambling approach of the plagueridden flesh eaters. He supposed it didn't really matter. Either way, he wasn't convinced a handful of bobbies would be able to stop the creatures if they decided to attack.
He looked around at the faces in the small crowd. There were six people attending the funeral. He couldn't help thinking there should have been more. He watched their unmoving shapes, hulked low against the torrential rain. They were there to bury Amelia Hobbes.
Newbury tried to listen to the words of the vicar, who conducted his sermon in a solemn, monotonous voice at the side of the grave. Beside him, a small altar boy clutched an umbrella as shelter for the holy man, but was bearing the brunt of the weather himself, soaked to the bone, his once-white robes now splashed with mud and dirt. A large pile of earth was heaped neatly beside the coffin-shaped hole, ready to be replaced once the ceremony was over. The scent of it filled Newbury's nostrils, fresh and damp.
Across from Newbury stood Mr. and Mrs. Hobbes, the parents of both the dead girl and her older sister, Miss Veronica Hobbes, Newbury's assistant, who stood beside him,unwilling to lift her face to meet their judgemental glares. Currently, the faces of the two middle-aged socialites were obscured, wreathed in drifting mist, but Newbury had spoken to them earlier and had seen only relief in their eyes. Relief to be free of the burden of their strange, tortured daughter: the girl who could see into the future.
Newbury had shaken their hands and offered his condolences, and had tried not to judge them too harshly. But having seen the manner in which they behaved towards Veronica, he had not been able to suppress a feeling of righteous indignation. It was clear to him that they were interested only in themselves, their fortune, and their reputation, and that their children were nothing but ornaments to be seen and admired. Amelia, broken, had been hidden away from prying society, moved from asylum to asylum, hospital to hospital, until only recently when Newbury himself had intervened, calling on the mercy of Her Majesty the Queen to have the unfortunate girl taken into the private care of Dr. Lucien Fabian, the Queen's personal physician.
Fabian's efforts had been an abject failure, but Newbury knew there was far more to it than that. The whole matter had been a terrible travesty, a betrayal of the worst kind. And of course Fabian wasn't here to see his charge put in the ground.
On the other hand, Dr. Mason, the man who had looked after Amelia during much of her decline, in the period preceding her transfer to Fabian's Grayling Institute, was in attendance. He seemed more concerned for Veronica than he did for himself, his eyes trained on her throughout the service. Newbury decided this was an admirable trait, althoughhe couldn't help feeling a spark of annoyance at the other man's attention.
To Newbury's right was Sir Charles Bainbridge, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, fellow agent to the Queen, and his dear friend. Bainbridge was older than Newbury by a decade, approaching his late forties, and he walked with a cane, his left foot damaged during some long-ago adventure. He wore a bushy grey moustache and a stiff top hat and looked bedraggled by the weather, even huddled beneath a heavy winter overcoat. He was staring into the hazy distance, lost in his own thoughts.
Newbury glanced at Veronica, who stood to the left of him. She was clearly distraught, sobbing openly, her head bowed. Her dark hair was lank and wet, clinging to her pale cheeks, but she seemed oblivious to the weather. The rain could do little to disguise the tears that streamed freely down her face.
Newbury looked up at the sound of footsteps. The pallbearers were approaching with the coffin.
Newbury moved closer to Veronica as they watched the men lower the coffin into the slick, waterlogged hole in the ground. Veronica stifled a single sob. The vicar continued to drone on, talking now of birth and resurrection. Newbury sighed. Birth and resurrection. That was what this was all about, one way or another.
The six pallbearers retreated slowly from the sides of the grave, their boots squelching in the sticky mud. Veronica stepped forwards, grabbed a handful of soil from the muddy bank, and cast it into the hole. "Good-bye," she said solemnly, then turned her back on the grave to face Newbury, a defiant gleam in her eyes.
Newbury watched her parents over her shoulder as they mumbled disapprovingly to each other. He smiled at Veronica, trying not to let her see his disdain. "Come on. Let's get you out of this dreadful rain, Miss Hobbes."
Veronica nodded silently. Her eyes were rimmed with red, her face forlorn. Abandoning all sense of propriety, Newbury stepped forwards and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, pulling her close. "Veronica. Come now, before you catch a chill." He whispered quietly in her ear. "This place will do you no good."
She leaned in closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder. He felt her body shaking with tears. For a moment, it seemed to Newbury as if they were alone in that sad, misty place; the other figures, all dressed in black, became nothing but inky smudges, hazy and out of focus. At that moment, only Veronica mattered.
Newbury led Veronica gently away from the congregation and towards the row of waiting carriages, nodding once at Bainbridge, whose face was creased with concern and infinite sadness.
Newbury did not look back again as he helped Veronica step up into the carriage and climbed in after her, dripping rainwater over the seats. He sat beside her, taking her hand in his own. "Lead on, Driver."
The drumming of the raindrops on the roof drowned out any response from the man hunched on the dickey box outside, but the horses juddered suddenly into motion, knocking Newbury and Veronica back into their seats. The wheels creaked as the carriage eased away into the foggy morning.
Copyright © 2011 by George Mann