Wandering the streets at night, looking for answers from within and without, is a dangerous hobby, as I am continually discovering. As the weather turns cooler in New Babbage the fog gets closer and soot clings to the moisture condensing on every available surface (including my face and clothes, sadly). My already impaired vision is even less reliable in this soup and, by my nature, i fall back on my hearing and other, more esoteric senses.
Having first arrived in New Babbage in the spring time, i was wholly unprepared for the drastic change one finds as the warm days draw to a close. It seems to me I see shadows everywhere – slight flickering movements in the corner of my eye. Not normally prone to hallucinations, my senses perk up, adrenaline rises through my body, a wave that brings me to full readiness. To the outward observer, I am still my calm, collected self. Striding confidently, my heels clicking loudly on the cobbles announcing to all my approach.
I pass by the Bucket of Blood and note a warm light coming from within. No, I think, I’m not wanting for drink or company, not tonight. Nor is my curiosity aroused to test the veracity of its unsavoury reputation. As I round the corner from the giant construction site I stop short, ears twitching. I did hear something. Something wet and gritty being dragged across stone. Oh that is not a good sound. Hearing nothing but silence for thirty seconds I continue, although endeavouring to muffle my loud shoes and step carefully. Again I halt. I definitely heard it this time. My body perfectly motionless, my ears and eyes scan the vicinity, looking for anything abnormal. I take a tentative sniff of the air: soot, of course, and something rotting. Something foul.
Some time ago, I was cautioned by the good Doctor to not wander about unarmed. Being a confirmed pacifist I privately scoffed at the notion, but nevertheless heeded his sage advice, my having much respect for his wisdom, and purchased a weapon. I retrieve it from its hiding place in my skirts and examine it, trying to remember how to activate the bloody thing. Finding its switch lever, the Aetherpistol powers up with a high-pitched whine and hope to all that’s holy that the dubious fellow who sold it to me didn’t fleece me and give me a useless bauble.
The wet scraping continues, more consistent than before. It is irregular, but persistent … and moving towards me. Shivering more than the chill air would have elicited, I check the charge on my weapon and heft it in the general direction of the noise, its source obscured by soup. Blast it, why did I not have the forethought to at least practice! Like a frightened animal, I am frozen in place, unable to move apart from my shaky right hand holding my weighty weapon.
Panting heavily, and with the sound coming ever closer, I mentally review the situation. My logical half would say its just someone dragging about some possession or other, a sack of goods, moving it from one place to another, and really, should I be brandishing a loaded weapon at a fellow citizen? But I know in my heart there is nothing human in that noise and something I should very much fear. I instinctually take a step backward into the road, looking quickly left then right. No traffic, no one about, just the fluctuating halos of gaslamps in the fog. Glancing forward again, I see it, or rather, its silhouette.
I gasp and hold my breath. Vaguely human in form, but misshapen somehow. Shambling, shuffling, scraping its way ever closer to me. I could fire now. Its definitely within twenty-five metres, my weapon’s stated range. My hand shakes more as I take aim, or attempt to. My equally shaky left attempting to steady my right. But what if I am wrong? what if it is some poor deformed beggar merely asking for tuppence? How could I live with myself if I were to harm another being?
My instincts shout loudly “no”. I do not feel another human nearby, of this i am certain. In this regard, I am never wrong. I take another step backward as the silhouette begins to coalesce out of the fog. Horror! Bit by bit its features are revealed, adding more terrifying and grotesque detail with every second, much to my disgust. I counter each of its “steps” forward with one backward, still unsure of myself. This hideous creature cannot mean well to me, even if it was once human. All the fanciful pub tales flash through my mind and made flesh – or rather carrion – before my eyes.
My back hits something and I look up. Blasted lamppost. The thing is now in the the intersection with me, shuffling in its filthy rags and oozing malice. “Stop there you!” I shout in a knowingly futile attempt, and in a less than intimidating voice. I am ignored and Mr. Persistence, as I will hereafter call it, shambles closer. My back is if glued to the gaslamp, frozen like a tree.
Its now or never, and I didn’t want to contemplate never. I closed my eyes tight, screamed and my right index finger twitched, almost involuntarily. My eyes see an unnatural blue flash, even through closed eyelids. The electric vibration in my hands rattles the bones in my arm, causing me to drop the weapon. My foot then slips on the wet cobbles and my posterior is deposited unceremoniously on the street. Great, now I’m helpless and what’s more, I probably missed.
Several seconds pass as I contemplate a horrible fate that seems a long time in coming. Experimentally i open one eye. Nothing. A vacant space where my horror had been. I look left and right, still nothing, empty street. The other eye opens to confirm the findings of its mate. I perk up my ears and hear nothing apart from the ever present hiss of steam heat. I let out a shaky breath that I felt I had been holding for thirty minutes and attempt to relax. Mouth drier than Arabia, I sure could use a spot of tea.
I then become keenly aware that my hind regions have been deposited in the murky gutter, by the foul liquid soaking quickly into my skirts. I scramble to my feet and make a feeble attempt to right my clothing and get the worst of the muck off. What a nightmare. But not. Of course, the evidence is right before me. After straightening my hat, I look down at the offensive weapon. I pick it up and look it over for signs of damage. I find none, save from one dark Aethertube, evidence that I had indeed fired a shot.
Walking a slow circuit of the intersection, I look for other evidence, to prove to myself that I wasn’t prone to hallucinations and randomly discharging weapons in the street. A cursory examination revealed only a few scraps of burned fabric that might once have been clothes, and a rather revolting greasy stain on the cobbles, obviously of biological origin. From my purse I retrieve a test tube and miniature spatula and proceed to take a sample for later examination.
My wisdom quickly overcomes my curiosity and I feel strongly that I should get indoors before another incident has the opportunity to occur. Moving quickly down the street, wary of every noise and flickering shadow, i turn the corner and gasp in one breath and find relief in the next. A cabbie smokes languidly by his Hansom. Just what I need. I ask him to take me to my lodging and we agree upon a fare. I resolve to call upon the Doctor in the morning, and ask his advice on some weapons training.