The Machine of Wester Moorley (§.02)

§.02

Albrecht shoveled the jam-and-butter-slathered bread into his mouth as Otto consulted a small glass of whiskey. Otto sipped and gestured to the jellied-roll on the engineer’s plate.

“You’re lucky. We’re nearly at the last of it.”

“Of the bread you mean?”

Otto nodded and held up the glass, swirling the amber liquid.

“Bread and whiskey both. Grain don’t grow out here no more, barley neither, and even if it did, we ain’t got no distillery. Have to order a new shipment soon. Place is dryer than a lizard’s backside…”

“Drought is worse than the papers made out.”

Again Otto nodded.

“Far worse. Situation’s been making folk a little crazy—those that’ve stayed, anyways.”

“Crazy—how so?”

Otto screwed up his face and looked out the window of the crowdless diner. A old, wrinkled woman, the owner, brought them coffee and hashbrowns and beans and forced a smile and departed without a word. Nervous. When she’d gone Otto returned his attention to the engineer, his voice low, barely above a whisper.

“Folk ain’t rightly religious in this town. Might call um superstitious. See, the drought started round the same time ole Wester Moorley came to town, fifteen years ago. Well, some of the old-timers came to believe that Ole Moorley had something to do with the drought. Blamed it on him. For the death of their crops. Their cattle. The heat. For losing their homes. For needing to move. For near everything whats gone wrong.”

“Why’d they blame him?”

“He’s a machinist. Folk round here don’t like machines. Besides, he’s a strange fellow. Keeps to himself, shut up in his homestead out to the north, just beyond town. Always tinkering away on some contraption or another. Won’t see nobody. Nobody but Mara—Henry the shopkeeper’s—daughter and a few’a the folk what come to believe he alone can save this place after the oil dried up and the pipelines failed. Don’t come to town no more. Sends Mara to pick up what he needs from the grocer. Well… folk naturally got curious. Asked Mara what all Ole Moorley was getting up to in that tumbledown out in the nowheres. Says she don’t know nothing and that make folk suspicious. Folk started thinking that one of them queer machines a’his lies at the bottom of it; others thought him a sorcerer, and that the machines were just a ruse to mask ritual sacrifice. Some have said they seen him slip out in the dead of night and return with a cattle skull. Now, I’m not keen on rumor-mongering. I ain’t. Find it downright distasteful. But I caint help but hear. Caint pocket my ears. I’m telling you cause you’ll hear it from someone else, sooner or later. I don’t know much what to think of it all myself, just want you to understand how things stand hereabouts.”

Brandt, furrow-browed and frowning slight, nodded, processing the information and filing it away in the crystalline corridors of his mind.

“I appreciate the edification. Far as I can figure though, I’ll be in and out soon as the pipes are laid and the water-tower is up.”

*

The Machine of Wester Moorley (§.01)

§.01

The barton of Nilreb sat upon a dry, razored plain, encircled by high and jagged mountains of reddish-beige stone that looked from afar like the fangs of some ancient and gargantuan beast. Only one road let in from the outer world to that wasted space and upon it, a lone man strode, a thin and handsome sort, with sharp, inquisitive features and clothing, neatly tailored but faded by the travails of lengthy passage. At his side was a large leather satchel and about his head, a misshapen hat which shaded bright blue eyes that scoured the cracked and inhospitable plane for any sign of life. He carried a plain white parasol in his leather-gloved left-hand and a smoldering Turkish cigarette in his right. Momentarily, he paused, cigarette dangling from his lips, ashes dancing on the wind, and removed a small, leather journal and mechanical pen from his right waistcoat pocket and made a few deft strokes upon the page, noting the humidity and temperature and sketching the plain before closing the book, pocketing it and taking a long drag as the wind threw sand across the truant’s boots, uncovering the skeleton of a steer, sun-bleached and wind-polished, glistening porcelain-white upon the ground, acrid as the bright and searing sky. He stopped and stared at the remnants, half-entombed by windblown earth and then returned his attention to the road and the distance beyond it.

In thrall to the heat, the horizon writhed like the nuchal organs of a feasting polychaete. The itinerant squinted against the hazebright, finding a shifting series of shapes in artificial sprawl beyond the toothy, ancient rocks surrounding. An acrid hamlet lay some half-hour off, tucked away in a depressed and craggy reach to the north.

When the man arrived at the outskirts moved cautiously between creaking, wooden structures whose stripped and unvarnished composition suggested recent abandonment. So dusty and worn were they that the itinerant feared they might collapse at the slightest gust.

The wayfarer peered through window after window and was, time after time, greeted by empty rooms.

After some ten minutes of fruitless wandering, a voice sounded from the rambler’s immediate left. Hoarse and matter-of-fact.

“Place isn’t worth looting—if that’s what’s on your mind.”

The itinerant went stiff with fright and spun to behold a stern, middle-aged man with a long, ugly scar upon his face.

“You’re mistaken, sir. I’m a engineer. Albrecht Brandt. Pleased to meet you.”

“Funny name.”

“So I’ve been told, sir.”

“You that fella the mayor brung in?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“Names Otto.” The man extended a hand, “I work with the mayor. Had I known you’d be here so soon, I’d have sent someone to the train station to pick ya up.”

“That’s quite alright. Wasn’t quite as long of a trek as I’d thought it would be,” He paused a moment and looked around in perplexity, “Where is everyone?”

“Folk been leaving on account of the drought. That’s why you’re here. Least one of the reasons. Suppose’n ya wanna see the mayor?”

“I’d be much obliged. But first I should like something to eat, if that were possible.”

Otto nodded, turned, left out and gestured for Albrecht to follow as the wind thrummed in the distance like an airy sepulchre, full-up with the howling of the dead.

*