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Moonlight came down through the rotting barn roof, when the man awoke to found himself blinded, restrained and unaware of his environment. His senses struggled to adjust to the dim light that shone through the burlap, and the faint smell of mould that it irradiated. As feeling returned to his body he noticed the restraints around his wrists, tied behind the backrest. Confusion turned quickly to panic when he realised his ankles were bound to the chair legs and he started to jerk his body around in a futile attempt to pull himself free. The chair moved from its place, the wood creaked, but his restraints refused to relax their hold. He must have turned full circle when a chair-leg finally succumbed under the strain. After a spontaneous snap, he keeled forward, landing on one knee while the cleft of the same leg got caught between the floor and the seat that carried the full weight of his own body. It was his bad leg, and when a  tearing sound and the muscles in his leg cramped together, he knew what pain awaited him. Still, it was never less painful. Screaming, he attempted to lay on his back, but his bond with the chair prevented him to find relief. 

As he laid there on his side, whimpering, he heard a door open. ‘For Pete’s sake, cun’t they make chairs like they used to?’ he heard a man complain, with a growling Irish accent. 

His voice broke as he yelled: ‘Who's there?’  

Untouched by his suffering, the stranger’s steps came closer. With some effort, his captor pulled him up and replaced the missing chair leg with a crate to support the weight. When the prisoner was vertical again he addressed the Irishman. ‘Who are you? What am I doing here?’

The man didn’t respond right away, apparently occupied with other things. ‘We know damn well what yea are doing here mate,’ he finally replied absentmindedly.

‘Who are you?’

‘I go by many names. But you may have heard of, Mr Lotto.’

The prisoner, recognising the name, was stunned.

‘That’s right. I am here to tell yea your number is up, 45.’

‘Do you know who you are working for?’ The prisoner asked, aware of the danger he was in. ‘What they have d-.’

‘Oh, come on! Always with the what about-ism,’ he complained indignantly. ’I am not here to judge ya, mate. The verdict has been passed years ago.’

‘They are in no position to judge me! Listen! They created the Nyctolope!’ his prisoner pleaded

‘Ai. I have 9’s number as well. I just never got to meet him. But you have, didn’t yea.’

‘Yes...’

‘How did ya meet?’ he asked.

‘I found him. Found him on Plane 22.’

There was a moment of awkward silence, till Irishmen responded, ‘Go on.’

*

It must have been the October of 1863 when I visited a former Associate to find out what he knew about a certain Construct, 331. He lived in of those guild run rural communities that produced apples and apple juice of all things. He was a stubby man, not all that happy to be visited by strangers, the least of all Associates. But he allowed me into his cottage. A bachelor's home, with clothes hanging to dry in the middle of the room and empty cider bottles on the table. 

‘Ask away, but make it quick,’ he said, uncorking a fresh bottle.

‘Have you known Associate 115?’ I asked him.

‘I might have,’ he answered as he sat down at the table and put one foot up.

‘She retired a number of years ago. Since then she seemed to have lived as a homemaker, near Madrid. Two children.’

‘How nice for her.’

‘They are all dead.’ 

I observed him in anticipation of a response. He adjusted his position in the chair. ‘That’s terrible.’

‘The were murdered. No, butchered.’

‘Well, that’s even worse. Not sure why you have come all the way to tell me so.‘

‘You were on an expedition together to Plane 22, with Associate 9, 54 and 115. That happened nine years ago.’

‘I can’t remember that mate, I am horrible with numbers.’

‘How about Construct 331.’

His eyes flinched for a moment. ‘What about it?’

‘According to the files I retrieved from the Association’s Library, your expedition attempted to track the origins of a number on parasitic Constructs, did you not? Automata to be specific.’

A forced smile appeared on his face. ‘Oh, I think I am starting to remember now. Yeah, we tracked down a bunch of them to someplace in France. An instance of C- I don’t remember the number. Snake like-things that like to drill inside people’s spines.’

C-33. They enjoy going after people active in mass production companies.’

‘Yeah, they had targeted some young industrial town in Southern France. We dealt with it.’

‘How?’

‘We found the infected and let the authorities handle it. The usual.’

‘What about Rift 22?’

He hesitated. ‘Yeah... Yeah, we found it. But we aborted the expedition after ones of those things caught Nine. A Fascinators jumped on his head. They’re smarter than they look.’

‘Fascinators?’

‘Yeah, C-44. Look like walking hats. Jump on top of somebody's head and just turn them into some mindless automaton. A terrible fate, I can tell ya.’

‘You left him behind?’ 

A forced smile escaped his lips. ‘Ha! There wasn’t much choice.’

‘Hmm.’ I reached in my pocket and produced an old telegram I recovered in the Association’s archive and proceeded to read its contents. ‘In this telegram, his last message, he wrote - I must return. Found a way to triangulate the signal. If the source is correct, this will sever them from the control unit. Instructions follow - What did he mean with that?’

He looked at me with dim eyes and a dumb grin appeared around his limp. ‘Tell me mate. Does the Chair know you are here?’

Now I hesitated. I was not, but didn’t want to to tell him. And It was obvious at that point I wouldn’t get any useful information out of him. I thanked the man for his time and left without learning anything new, but confirming certain assumptions of mine.

My personal investigation started two months prior, during my stay in Madrid. While visiting the local lodge I was informed of a horrible murder of a family, a husband and wife and their two children. It was remarkably savage, that made police suspect Outsiders were involved. But it wasn’t the obvious horror of the case that made it stand out to me. It was the fact it was an isolated incident. Then a fellow Associate from Madrid admitted, the wife was a former Associate. 

The woman in question had retired from the cause years ago, and there didn’t seem to be motive for the murders. For all intents and purposes, it seemed random. But it didn’t feel right. Something about this worried me and I feared more Associates might be in danger. I threw myself on the case and investigated her past activities as Associate 115. She had been very active during her time. Her final expeditions involved several Associates 9, 57 and 61. 57 had already demised, drank himself to death. 61 was the gentleman at the apple farm. And the front-man of this group, Associate 9, disappeared. And with that I mean, he vanished from the records, completely. I discovered this when I requested information at the Association’s central library. All I got were some old telegrams from which I managed to decipher Associate 9’s final destination; Rift 22. 

I found this unacceptable, however, and addressed the error to the Library's clerk. An odd red bearded man wearing a top hat with a stovepipe sticking from the side, indoors. A matter a fact, his whole right side had been heavily augmented, including the eye, arm and leg. And the Bone-saws had done a terrible job of it, as he moved around like a cripple, throwing the weight of his prosthesis around with every step. But when he stood still, he irradiated a sense of dignity about him, that seemed inconsistent with his motions.

‘I am sorry,’ he answered bluntly with a deep voice. ‘But these entries do not exist,’ 

I pressed my finger on the paper. ‘But these are noted right here!’ 

‘Maybe these were reported by Associates, but never deposited,’ he retorted. ‘The old guard wasn’t very keen on the paperwork. These days we have envoys to collect the files from the various lodges, but not then.’

‘And these files have not been retrieved since?’

‘That’s the problem with acting too late. Done damage, is done.’

‘All right.... Who was supposed to *deposit* these files,’ I demanded.

He slowly lowered his gaze down at the register. ‘Associate 9... Off course, this is an old record. The gentlemen could have retired since then.’

‘How about this? Deliver me all the entries regarding Associate 9 from… Two years before, and after, this item was filed.’

His left eye stared at me from beneath the ridge of his thick brow as to emphasis his displeasure. ‘That will take time. Come back tomorrow.’ 

So I did and, once the files were provided, I searched the documents for any useful entries. But Associate 9 seemed to have disappeared from the face of the Earth. No reference to him leaving the Association, or being missing. Just cases that he had worked on before and some correspondence. There was a bit of a theme in his work. He had a keen interest in automatons. In particular C-33 and C-44 which he believed were related to each other and suggested a force was creating unwilling sleeper agents through parasitic machines. He referred to these agents as, Nyctolope. It had something to do with an odd glow in their eyes that could be seen under certain low light conditions. 

Then I encountered an obscure reference. Construct-331. I searched the pile for the entry with this number, but could not find it. Realising it was missing I looked in the librarian’s direction. At that moment he glanced back at me. Abruptly he staff off his gaze, pretending to be distracted by a piece of paper. Feigning ignorance as well, I turned to the files in front of me. I felt that all this paper was just a distraction. But one entry, a telegram, caught my attention. The final message from Associate 9. 

‘I must return. Found a way to triangulate the signal. If the source is correct, this will sever them from the control unit. Instructions follow.’

Off course, as far as the archive was concerned, these instructions never arrived.

*

A week after I visited (former) Associate 61 at the apple farm, I arrived in the French town that Associate 9 visited last. A failed industrial community in the south of the country, created to house the rural population that worked in the then-new, but now abandoned factories. The working-class families, who remained, lived in dilapidation tenement buildings on either side of the narrow streets. An odour of stale garbage drifted on the dank autumn breeze as I walked past the boarded-up shop fronts, on my way to the police station. I had seen no young, or healthy, men or women. Just the poor and destitute. Parent-less children running amok. Elderly, too worn out to walk straight. And a housewife sitting beside a pile of empty bottles, undoubtedly waiting for a check from her husband who worked half across the country. 

A statue in the city square was maimed to a point only the torso and legs remained, which were postured like that of a young military officer in the prime of his life. What little splendour the city possessed had faded away or was painted over with cries for revolution or denounced society in general. In front of the police station a bust of a man in uniform been smashed. Some pieces of its face still laying neglected at the feet of the sepulchre. It didn’t make sense to me. They had all the opportunity to make something of this place. Yet, it appeared they rather revelled in misanthropy.

Inside the police station’s reception area, an old man in an antiquated gendarme uniform set at the desk. Another one leaned backwards in a chair, his legs prostrated on top of a table as he slept.

The old man looked up, surprised to see me, or anyone at all, and greeted me with a hoarse voice.  ‘Can I help you?’    

‘I need some information about some incidents that happened nine years ago.’

He immediately straightened himself and looked me up and down in suspicion. ‘Are you a journalist?’

‘No. But I am an investigator. It might be related to a recent murder of a family in Spain.’

‘Mon Dieu!’

I showed him a picture of Associate 115 of a few years prior. It had been taken after the birth of her second child. The old gendarme nodded. ‘Oui, she was her when... ’ He stopped as his mind seemed to drift away.

‘When, what?’

Embarrassed he replied: ‘Strange things were happening at the factories. Some workers had been murdered. Than… The Maltoux family was killed… They owned most of the factories here. It was the youngest son. He lost his mind. It is suspected he was responsible for the other murders as well.’

‘Then he killed himself, didn’t he?’

He nodded with watery eyes as it clearly brought up painful memories. ‘Oui. Shoved his head between the spokes of the watermill.’

As was typical of individuals infected with C-33; they destroy their own heads. ‘That is when she came?’ I asked.

‘Yes. Paranormal investigators, they called themselves.’ He smiled ironically. ‘It all started when they uncovered that ancient burial site about a month before the murders.’

The statement made me laugh. Obviously it was a cover, but not that far from the truth either. Even funnier seemed to me they confused an automaton with an evil spirit. But I could appreciate the metaphor.

‘Merde!’ he cried as he slammed his fist on the desk. ‘The Mayor had told them to bury that thing! But it would be good for tourism, they said.’  

‘The burial site?’

‘Oui! They discovered it when they were constructing a new factory building. The town was doing great back then. But once the Dolmen was revealed, it was all over. The Maltoux family had visited the site the moment the entrance had been cleared. But once inside, they left the basement in a huff. They had seen something in there. And the son Frederique. He had never been the same since. He started acting odd. Locked himself away in the manor. And when he left their estate, he was always at the factory…’

‘I need to see this burial site.’

‘Monsieur. You should leave this place! It has driven this town mad, haven’t you seen it?’

‘Exactly. That is why you need to point me there.’

 

*

 

It was an odd experience to walk by the roofless factory walls of the abandoned construction site, but this was the location of the Neolithic dolmen that I was looking for. At the edge of town, the ancient relic sat there at the bottom of the grass-covered trench, surrounded by crumbling brickwork. It looked rather idyllic, to be honest. But when I descended, my suspicions were once again confirmed. The chamber underneath the massive stone slabs was supposed to be sealed by a metal door. Unfortunately, it was forced out of its hinges, its padlock still hanging off the door-bolt. Whatever did this, was powerful enough to ram the entrance with such force It shattered the surrounding stone holding the door in place. Lantern in hand, I went down the stairwell into the ancient structure. It was far larger than the exterior suggested, and the slate steps guided me deeper inside the earth. Down in the cellar, I finally found it. Rift 22, drifting just above ground like a faint shadowy flame. 

In a moment of hesitation, I wondered why should I traverse it. I put down the lantern on the cobblestone floor, stepped inside the Rift and waited for my vision to blur. I had gotten quite used to this sense of non-existence, and it took away any doubt I had about what I was doing. Then I felt my feet again, walking on a softer surface. After raising my eyelids, my sight adjusted to the light and the new world revealed itself to me. That is when I gazed into precipice right in front of my feet. Peering unwillingly at the dirt below, my heart seemed to skip a beat when I took my distance from the edge and looked around in bewilderment on the lookout for any other ways to get myself killed. But no. I just happened to stand at the edge of a humongous ditch.

From the precipices, I overlooked the strip-mine that reached beyond the horizon. A massive excavation machine had unearthed an ungodly amount of land leaving a trench of 60 feet deep that reached for miles. But it wasn’t just the earth itself that had been moved. The nearby city had entire districts scoped out of it, including the sewage systems as if they intended to remove it from the geological record entirely. However, for whatever the reason, the work had stopped. The enormous excavation wheel was stuck in the side of the pit its own making, buried underneath a clock tower whose foundation it was scoping away. The Gothic arches, that were caught inside the wheel, were strained under the weight of the crumbling monument. But they bore its weight, just as they had done for hundreds of years, and they seemed intent to do so for another hundred. The behemoth itself now served as a nesting ground for birds who flocked around the rafters, that connected the main body with the caterpillar tracks from which plants had sprouted.

My direct vicinity consisted mostly of overgrown mounds of dirt leftover from the excavation works. But at some places, I could spot buried remnants of walls and other man-made debris. Curiously, I went looking for any hints of the world’s fate. I discovered ditches that included recently turned earth. Looking inside them, my estimation this place being a buried junkyard turned out to be correct. The ground was rich with all matter of items. Metals, resins, even material often described as plastics stuck out from the ground. If I wasn’t mistaken, the Association would describe this as a tier IV civilisation. A more advanced civilisation than ours that was of great interest to us, but no reason to remove knowledge of its existence from the archives.

I ventured forth into the city. The streets of the outer districts were overgrown by weeds, but traces of the chaos were still visible. Between the working-class houses, all manners of household objects and random luggage wasted away underneath the foliage. Even though the families that lived here were disappeared, it felt like they were still present in spirit.

While conceptualizing what could have transpired, I found a clue. Beneath a spoke wheel of a crashed carriage, I discovered an object that stood out even in this futuristic environment. It was a spider-like contraption with a hat-shaped shell that seemed out of place on this world. One of it legs broke off as I studied it, but I was certain. C-33; A monstrous device that attached itself to its victim’s head and turns it into a mindless automaton. I knew more planes succumbed to swarms of these things of unknown origin, but I’d never seen one. This specimen was deactivated for months if not years, but it didn’t put me at ease. But it didn’t make sense. What I saw in those crime-scene photos and reports was nothing, if not the work of a sick mind. Not that of some soulless automaton. More and more it dawned on me nothing here had anything to do with the murder, but something came through the Rift! Could it be the man at the apple farm was lying and did they leave Associate 9 behind in his hour of need? And had he returned for revenge after all those years? I discarded the ridiculous idea. Even if it was so, Associate 9 body would have crumbled to dust after a month. Thus I continued my search. 

The inner city’s tenement houses, venues, halls and public buildings were but barren shells of their former splendour and were surrounded by the same sensation of dread I experienced in the previous districts. These monumental buildings were not destroyed by war or machines, however. I found no craters or bullet holes. No shell casings or abandoned military equipment. Instead, I discovered the burned remains of furniture and books inside pyres used to set buildings alight. Defaced and dismembered statues, graceful decorations, even on the spandrels had been vandalised. Whatever the identity of the city and its people happened to be. It was all turned to rubble and ash. Though it was clear the city was to be wiped off the face of the earth, this destruction didn’t feel consistent with the land-moving-machine. Instead, it seems somebody attempted to finish whatever the Excavators had started. And why? Didn’t they want to see future generations to see their achievements? To read the wisdom of their ancestors or hear the melodies that have been past down the ages? What could drive anyone to destroy in days what took civilisations countless generations to create? And what would they replace it with?  

On the vertical surfaces, that weren’t destroyed, they scratched or painted hollow phrases like ‘Unite’, ‘Ricke-tick-tick’, ‘find-the-transmission’, ‘nothing-to-lose’ and ‘rig-the-world’. That is what they contributed to this place. Instead of building it up again, they turned it into an alter to resentment. But resentment against what?

The red of the encroaching sunset appeared in the sky, and I decided to go back while the light lasted. But I did so unsatisfied. It seemed too obvious that whoever remained in this place, could be ones responsible for the murders. By why did the Association hide it? What did they attempt to achieve here?

Then I stopped. It was a statement. On a large wall I had passed earlier, coming from the other side, a single phrase froze the blood in my veins. My gaze scanned the six feet tall letters and translated the jagged symbols smeared across the brickwork: 

‘Triangulate the Signal!’

I was overcome by a mixture of bewilderment and terror. Was this left here by Associate 9? Did that mean he was still alive? Impossible. Even if the survivors didn’t kill him, Travels Disease would have.

My contemplation was interrupted by a gong-like drone reverberating through the empty streets. Turning to the source of the dreadful sound, I realised it came from the collapsed clock tower leaning against the Excavator. So, survivors were still here. 

Considering searching out the tower I noticed a faint noise. A rhythmic sound similar to that horse hooves coming down the street. But then I realised that the sound, akin to the systemic ticking of several grandfather clocks, were emitted om ruins behind me. I turned about, and that is when they appeared. Three of them. Automaton-like humans vaulted from behind the walls and rubble. Their skin was pallid and scabbed. Their prosthesis, though far less elegant or sophisticated looking than those on the crippled librarian, were more agile and articulated in ways alien to humans. Their posture was akin to those of predatory creatures, while their heads ticked like pocket watches and the joints rattled like springs being wound, over and over again. 

One was female, wearing something resembling a tattered undergarment, patched together so much I doubted anything of the original fabric remained. Her limbs were all prosthesis, the arms being unusually thin and frail-looking while her thighs were thick and joints arranged like those of a turkey. Beneath matted braids of hair lurked the crazed eyes of a beast, eager to lash out at me.

The second one, on the other hand, had the appearance of a peaceful giant, augmented from the waist down and fitted with limbs to large for his head and chest. Behind a curtain of dark hair, that reached down his back and covered his collarbones, glowed red round eyes staring at me with a mixture of contempt and curiosity.     

The last one, a bald man whose scalp been replaced with a metal lid, seemed the be the most sentient of the trio. Like the others, his legs resembled rudimentary prosthesis which anatomy resembled that of a bovine or a bird. His arms were human but marked with countless surgical scars. His head twitches mechanically as if a spring forced him to look to the side.

Despite the differences between them each of them had a cluster of cylinder-shaped devices sticking out the back of the skulls, arranged in a way I find hard to describe. 

But once the one with the metal scalp managed to control his spasms, he gradually turned his gaze at me and spoke out with a sharp chirping voice that pierced my eardrums. ‘What does it do here?’ he said to nobody in particular. I believe he was thinking out loud.  

Holding my hands up in front of me I pleaded with them. ‘I mean you no harm. I am just exploring.’

‘That tone,’ he remarked with suspicion. ‘It came through that Portal.’

‘Uhm, yes. Yes, I did.’   

The automata looked at each other. ‘You are a follower of the Ish-tar?’

Surprised by the question I hesitated. How did it know of us? It must have been something that happened all those years ago and decided it was better not take any chances and said: ‘I am not sure to what you are referring.’

‘They promised,’ he responded with suppressed anger. ‘ They Promised! They would reconnect us!’

‘I still don’t know what you mean.’

‘The Ishtar condemned us to this!’ He pressed the palms of his hands against his temples ‘Gears grinding to the interior of our skulls, going Ricke-tick-tock! The Signal takes it away. Ends the noise! Reset the Signal. Reset the Signal!’ He seemed to get stuck it a loop and repeated random phrases like a broken gramophone. His odd companions, coming closer, groaned in sympathy and seemed to judge me the source of his suffering. Like pack-predators, they moved in around me.  

Before I could turn away, the woman had already leapt behind me, barring my way. That is when the giant grabbed me and lifted me up like I was a mere child. Its over-sized hands squeezed the air out of my chest and I could feel my ribs being strained under the pressure. I couldn't breathe and my sight started to fade to black. It was the closest to death I have ever been.

 

“And sometimes, I still feel his grip around my chest.”     

 

*

 

The Irishman, Mr Lotto nodded in approval. ‘Great story.’

‘You know nothing,’ 45 moaned through the burlap sack. ‘Men fear the cold calculating rationality of the machines who care nothing for their suffering. But how about machines, who revel in our pain?’ 

‘How about men who act the same?’ Mr lotto retorted.

‘How dare you compare us to them!’

‘Ah, hit a nerve there, did I? For where I am sitting, you Invictus blokes are no bloody different.’

‘We do it for the sake of the world! ’

‘Oh, course you do.’

‘Listen!’

‘No, no. I heard it all, mate. Lived it. Got the bloody commemorative pin. I have done all the thing you’ve done. I just didn’t get thousands of people killed by blowing up a dam because you suspected some C-33 infestations.’

‘Suspected? They were out in the open’

‘So, maybe they were. But thousands? Those were just the deaths. That city stood there since antiquity. And you wiped it away with the same ease you empty a chamber pot.’

‘You do not understand...’

‘Care to explain, then?’

‘I was getting to that!’

 

*

 

In the midst of strangling me, the giant froze. Astonished, I saw his head being pulled away from me. Releasing his hold on me, he reached for the collar wrapped around his throat. As the giant stumbled backwards, the other two automata became paralysed the moment the creature casts its long shadow over us. A hooded mechanical centaur, its upper body draped in moldy leather robes, wielding the man-catcher that enveloped the giant's neck. Its torso was slight to the centre of the scorpion-like frame so two legs were in front of its chest. 

Petrified, I observed how it dragged the giant, ensnared between the pole arm’s prongs, besides its arachnid-like body with the same ease the Grim Reaper wielded its scythe. As agile as a woodlouse it traversed the debris and swung the giant through the air like a fisherman throwing out a line.  With a thrashing sound, the mechanical homunculus landed somewhere out of sight in the rubble of the ruins. Then the centaur turned to face us.   ‘Dunn tous iem!’ it bellowed, with a voice that vibrated like a tuba. ‘Ia ief

Df514439-3b42-4b8f-92f4-85f35dff14a5

Sketch of Aqrabua by Bonsart

use fur this specimin!’

The duo recoiled with a mixture of fear and awe. Then they ran off, leapt behind cover and disappeared from sight. 

Caught in its shadow I hesitated to look at the centaur. But when I tried to make out its visage, all I could see was a cluster of lights were a face should be. 

‘Thank you,’ I said.

It tilled its head, awkwardly.

‘I said, Thank you,’ I repeated.

 The creature straightened himself and reached behind its back, searching for something inside its cloak. Finally, he retracted his hand and threw something in my direction. I caught the object and looked at it in confusion. It looked like a telegraph horn. ‘Speak ien it,’ he commanded.

I held the speaker to my face. ‘Like this?’

‘Yeahs. Ia has replaced my auditory system, fieltering out any diestractive noices.’

‘That explains the speech impediment.’

‘Whagh spiech impedimen?’ it asked.

‘Em, nothing. But thank you for saving me.’

‘Are you Istharian?’ The question seemed almost like a threat.

‘How did you… Never mind. What did they mean with, they would reconnect us?’

‘Hmmm. You know nothing, do yea?’

‘No, sir- What's your name?’

‘Aqrabua,’ it growled. The automaton’s body hinged, chirped and rattled as it bent its scaled frame in the opposite direction. ‘Fullow me!’

Left with no other option, I followed it to a dome-shaped structure on a hill, similar to an observatory. The ground surrounding might have been park one time, but now it was littered by piles of junk, scrap and discarded prosthesis. I paused when I noticed a pile of human bones. 

‘What is this place?’

'‘My workshop ies inside,’ he said. ‘After the Connection was severed most of us regained...’ he hesitated to say it. ‘Loneliness. We were all alone since then, with the noise inside our heads. Most succumbed to the madness. But I augmented mysel'f. Changed my auditory system. I have been improving myself, made me more efficient. Made others more efficient. Prepared others to unite with the network. Yeash.’

‘Have you changed the auditory systems of others as well.’

‘No-wh.’

‘Why not?’

‘They would lose their sense of purpose. Became aimless…. Or, try to improve themselves.’

At that moment I realised I wasn’t just talking to some horrific Engineer. This thing was something that kept his fellow automata in a state of permanent suffering, because it suited his ends. 

'As it held the door open he gestured me to go inside, and against better judgement I did. The interior was vibrating with the hums of machinery. The observatory had been converted into a dreadful amalgamation of a greasy tools and a surgical instrume'nts. Cables ran up the partially disassembled telescope-like liane and the opulently tiled floor was covered by a mixture of oil and dried blood. In front the enormous telescope stood a cage that might have housed birds once, but it’s contents were now hidden beneath a large moldy carpet. 

Without saying a word the Aqrabua walked past me and grabbed the tapestry. Pulling it away with frightening ease, he revealed a cadaverous looking woman in haggard cloths,  sitting motionless in a finely crafted chair surrounded by dead plants. She stared lifelessly into nothing while cables ran, from underneath her scarecrow-like haircut, down her shoulder. On top of her head sat the corroding contraption. It was again a version of C-33, its legs buried inside her head, possibly for many years. She didn’t seem to mind, content with sitting there almost like soulless fairy tale princess.

‘That ies the last Original,’ he explained. ‘Thies unit is still in contac. The Ishtarian used  iet to sever the connection an only he knows how to reset iet.’

It all started to come together now. Associate 9 came here to break these automata. But instead, he returned their consciousness to them, turning them into the monstrosities I have witnessed today. No wonder the Chair didn’t want anyone to find out about this place.

‘Ever since the connection got severed, the madness spread,’ he continued. ‘Now they know of the portals, they go out and seek out the Creators. Thies ies a problem for me. Ief the Creators find out what happend, they might return to terminate us.’

‘Who are these, Creators?’ As I uttered the phrase, the irony of their title hit me. For were they not the ones who build the excavator? 

He ignored my question and simply said: ‘Ia need yea to speak to the one who did thies. Ask hiem how I can reset this unit. Yea can find hiem inside the Cathedral.’

‘Why don’t you ask him your-’ Than I looked at the horn in my hand that allowed us to communicate, and I changed my question. ‘Is he the Istharite you mentioned?’

‘Yeash.’

‘That should not be possible,’ I retorted. Nine should have turned to dust years ago.

'Towering over me, he anticipated my explanation, but I couldn’t give it to him without confirming my identity' - if he didn’t know that already. 

‘The, Cathedral you say,’ I continued feigning ignorance. ‘And what will I get in return for this favour?’

‘Ia let you live,’ he stated bluntly. ‘And maybe I won’t send the others after you when you are done.’

Left no choice, I made my way toward the Cathedral. Aqrabua pointed me toward the clock tower, confirming my earlier suspicion. But he would no go there himself, a suggestion he wasn’t welcome there. 

At this point, I had gotten tired of being pushed around by parties with their hidden agendas. The Association tried to hide the atrocity Associate 9 had committed, and now I was a pawn in one of this monster’s games. 

The night was vast approaching as the low droning noise from the tower made the debris quake beneath my feet. From a bedroom window, inside a dilapidated hotel, I watched as dozens, if not hundreds of the monstrous automatons left the Cathedral. A genuine medieval building, frozen in time at the moment it was about to be dug away like a sandcastle by the excavator. But what could they possibly worship? Maybe the automatons simply didn’t know better. 

I watched glowing eyes pass by in the twilight while they mumbled random words and plain gibberish, supported by the constant rhythm of clockwork. When the last ones left the Cathedral, I hurried down and sneaked through the ruins until I finally reached the front gate. As expected, saints were torn down, the faces smashed. The stories and depictions that once held meaning were painted over with more meaningless jargon.    

The interior was is in a similar condition to the outside yet it was more than that. What I found was nothing short of a morbid reliquary, lit up by collections of tubular lamps attached to the age-old chandeliers with glass crystals at its centre. Amongst the light fixtures, strung up 30 feet above the choir area, I spotted his remains. Associate 9’s arms were spread wide like angelique wings, while his torso was suspending from numerous steel cables and tubes, attached to the incomprehensible tangle of rafters above. There was little else left of him. But how? How come his body had not been turned to dust? The tubes! It was hard to say from this distance, but the secret must have poured through those tubes! Could it be they found a countermeasure for Inter-planer Anthropy!

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when a shrill obnoxious voice of an old man vibrated through the nave. ‘Who’s there?’

Like frozen my soles stuck to the ground as I looked up in fright.  

 ‘Hah! I can see you scurrying about. Yeah! You!’

I turned my gaze into the direction of the corpse. 

‘Don’t be shy. I hang here for your entertainment. Who are you, young man? A new believer? Nooo-ow, you are not here to hate on me. Are you?’

‘No.’ I answered, finally knowing how to respond. ‘I am here to… undo a mistake.’

‘Hugh.’ He sounded like he was about to suffocate. ‘An Associate then?’  

‘Yes! Yes, I am an Associate. Are you number Nine?’

He smiled with a toothless grin while making a sound as if something was broken. ‘Heh, heck, heck, heck. I used to have a number!’ he proclaimed in the way that conveyed both pride and malice. ‘Yes! That is how I got strung up here.’

‘So, it is true then. You did this to them!’

‘Yeessss. It’s, because of me!’ He cried, again with that ominous tone that filled me with dread. ‘They hated me. Wanted to tear me apart, but now I am the object of their veneration!’

‘Why? What did you do?’

‘Look at me! Is it obvious! I saved them. Heck, heck!’

‘How did you do it? Did you do it by reprogramming one of these things? tampering with its receivers?’

'‘Re-program?’ His voice broke. ‘Hah. They turned me into this to torment me like the gear in their heads go… Ricke-tick-tock. Ricke-tick-tock.’ He started to sing, but the melody quickly turned to cries and wails that echoed from within a pit of regret and self-pitty, as he kept repeating the mantra. ‘Ricke-tick-tock! Ricketick-tock! ricketic-tockricketic-’ He voice went on like a gramophone that got stuck on a loop as his body started to jerk back and forth, faster and faster with such ferocity it caused a wave in the drapes 'of cables behind him. ‘Ricketicktockricketick-Ricketicktockricketickricketick-’

‘Stop it!’ I cried, attempting to shout over his intense ramblings. ‘How did y-’

Before I could finish the question, an ear rupturing metal sound made the ground shake. And with that, the old man stopped abruptly and looked up at the rafters in anticipation.

I pleaded with him. ‘Quickly! Tell me, what did you do?’ 

Another surge of steel grinding against steel, followed by the ticking of gears turning. Still looking up the ceiling the helpless old man started to ascend as the cables tightened and started to lift him up.

‘Tell me!’

He looked down on me one last time. ‘Start by triangulating the Signal,’ he cried and then he repeated it with a contradictory tone of triumph. ‘Triangulate- the-Signal!’ 

 That is when he rose up in between the criss-cross of steel beams, chains and cables until he disappeared out of sight.  

Through the white noise of colliding objects and screeching metal, I could already hear the sound of approaching clockwork. I fled the Cathedral, then the city and made my way back to the edge of the pit where the Rift home awaited me. I didn’t think of anything else other than getting out of this hell. 

'In the final dash for the Rift, as the moonlight illuminated the wrinkles between the mounds of trash, my foot stepped on' a plate. The last thing I heard was the clenching of metal as my leg got stuck in a bear trap. It rusted teeth bit me all the way to the bone. The heavy chain was attached to a heavy rod lodged in the earth. In a panic, I searched around between the foliage and high, noticing more traps in my vicinity. I was a fool to think that Aqrabua would let me get away this easily. Cutting my hands on countless objects I dug out something resembling a rod and pried my leg free for the iron maw.  

Bleeding, I staggered the last distance to the Rift that was in arms reach. But I cheered too soon. The Rift flickered to life and like a spectre, a person come through from the other side. It was the man I met at the apple farm, former Associate 61. The moment he saw me he drew a Webley I pointed it in my general direction. ‘I am gonna have to stop you there, friend.’

I allowed myself to tumble backwards, to exhausted stand. ‘So, you lied to me! You knew what they did to Nine.’ 

He looked at me, baffled. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘I saw him hanging in the Cathedral. Still alive and untouched by Travelers Disease! Is this what you are trying to hide?’

He raised an eyebrow. ‘You are making a bigger deal out of it than it is?’

‘Than why is he still hanging there!’

‘Why? Politics, that why. In case you haven’t noticed, these things aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. If the Chair and the Oversight Committee wanted to commit for once, this city would have been cleared within the week.’

‘Then why? They already killed 115! And you are afraid they are gonna get you,’ I concluded.

‘You have no proof it was one of them. A matter a fact, I suspected it was you. Who could have figured out what her number used to be? She was too thorough to let anything like that happen to her family!’

I thought about it for a moment. ‘Unless the Chair wanted her to be found, so nobody would know about your secret’

That made him pause but then he shook his head. ‘You are really overthinking this.’ 

‘Am I? What certainty do you have they are not going after you next?’ 

He seemed puzzled by that statement. I let him maul it over before I said something stupid. Then he lowered his gun. ‘Fine,’ he said as he reached a hand out to me. I hesitated, for after all that I wasn’t sure I could trust anyone. But if I was to expose the Association, I had need of allies. 

So, I decided and straightened my self, and reached out to him. But before we made contact, trash sheared past me as something rose from the ground. 61 screamed as he was lifted off his feet by the beast that had become all too familiar to me. It was Aqrabua, who had been waiting in an ambush this entire time. He scoped up 61 with his man-catcher, and the man seemed to have lost consciousness almost immediately. It all happened so fast, I hadn't had any time to lower mine. Awestruck I looked up at Aqrabua’s illuminated gaze, as 61 hang from over his shoulder.

‘You served me well little one,’ He said. ‘Better than even I anticipated. I have been waiting for these to return. Number 115 wasn’t as cooperative.’

‘So, it was you?’

‘By proxy, yeash,’ he admitted. ‘Now go! We’re done here!’ 

And with that, he left me behind. I don’t know what became of 61, but I think I have a fair guess. 

Ever since then it has become clear to me Aqaubua isn’t just any freak. He has sent his agents all over our Plane. He used the same stratagem as the Creators of C-33 and C-44. They create their minions on our Plane with help of various factions, the Association included.      

 

*

'‘So, you see. It's not just the Nyctalope is what the Chair is trying to hide,’ 45 proclaimed to' Mr Lotto. ‘Aqrabua is out there, sending his agents out to destroy our world.’

Mr Lotto shook his head in disbelief.’ So, that is what this is all about. You personal guilty conscious for leading 61 to him?’ 

‘No! Don’t you see? His agents have infiltrated the Association! They found a way to neutralise the effects of Travellers Decay. They even have a safe-house code-named Sanctuary where they keep all manner of Outsiders! Look for it!’

‘Oke, mate I think it is time to put you out to pasture’

 ‘If you are not with us, you’re against us. Atlas Invictus!’

'‘Mate, I don’t care on who side you think I am. I am here to kill a man who committed treason,’' Lotto said as he hangs a noose around his neck and added as he tightened the rope. 

‘We did it to save the world, you prick!’

‘Yea, great job you’ve done. No matter what you do, you are always on the right side of history. Trust me, I’ve been there mate. I know how good it can make you feel. That’s why I volunteered myself to rid the world of the likes of you.’

‘How does that make you any different.’

‘Like I said. I don’t pass judgement. I am just an executioner who enjoys his job. Bye!’ 

And with that, he opened the hatch that was underneath the chair. The traitors died swiftly, as the fall broke his neck. Lotto wouldn’t have minded if he had lasted a bit longer. It was just a shame the giant didn’t end him, for generations will suffer due to his actions. But done damage is done.’   

He picked up the telegraph and contacted his employers.

‘Is it done?’ asked a distorted voice from the other side of the connection

‘Yea, mate. I hang the garbage out to dry. I will prepare the body for the autopsy tonight.’

‘Good. Your payment will be transferred as usual?’

‘Yea, that fine… But tell me, did you try to cover up what Associate 9 had done?’

There was just the noise of static.

‘Did you copy? Did you-’

‘I’m sorry Mr Lotto. The signal seems to break up. Could you repeat that last message, over..’

Mr Lotto sighed. ‘Just make sure my payment is transferred, over.’

 

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