October 31, 18–
The fog was thick that night. The only thing missing was the taste of pea soup. But my nose tasted something else, something rotten accompanied by a hiss from an alleyway as I passed by. And it wasn’t the hiss of machinery.
Why, oh why, did I pick Halloween of all nights to slip into New Babbage? I’m just an engineer, not a vampire hunter.
Even Norbit, my unflappable “auto-mate” machine hovering dutifully at my shoulder, was agitated. He let out a timid little bleep as whatever-it-was breathed hungrily nearby. Almost by themselves, my ears vacillated between upright attentiveness and demure, folded fright. If I wasn’t on the run already, I would have stayed on the bus. As it was, I had to hide somewhere.
I missed my friends and my home of Rookerburgh, both now very, very far away. But for a leaf-eater like me, there was no going back. The idea of a fair trial back home was a pipe dream. The rippers (that’s “carnivores” to you foreigners out there) controlling the Hightown senate would make sure the crime I was accused of would never see a fair trial. The city watch would make a “mistake”, the bounty hunters would get too “enthusiastic”, and my death would be an unfortunate tragedy. So I had to run to the first city outside their official jurisdiction.
At least there’s a statue of limitations on grand theft. That’s one crime I’m actually guilty of, the whole “fleeing for my life” thing notwithstanding.
The other charge of attempted murder was a lie. A jealous suitor, a potato stuffed in an exhaust valve, and an explosion in a fruit stand. All of it ultimately led here, with me shivering in the fog and hoping to put a door between me and the night.
By the light of the gas lamps I could just make out the words “Loner Lane” printed on a nearby street sign. The name suited me. I was without friends or even contacts in New Babbage. So, hissing alley thing or no, I walked through the fog toward what looked like a lighted shop front.
“May I help you?” The shop keeper had an evil look to him. Babbage had a lot more humans in it than I was used to, not that humans bothered me in general. Moreaus like me were long past the prejudices of the experiments that created our ancestors. No, it wasn’t his race that made my fur bristle all over.
He had fangs. Fangs longer than the rippers had back home. And his skin was completely bloodless. I gulped. I’m no expert, but I don’t think humans are supposed to look like that. Still and all, I plunged ahead. “Ummm… yes,” I said, trying to keep the fright out of my voice. “Do you know where I could rent out a room somewhere?”
The man, if man he was, licked his thin pale lips with a tongue equally lacking in blood. “Of course, my dear little bunny. You may buy one right here for a mere pittance a week.”
His use of the word “bunny” made me sigh inwardly, but since all I wanted was a hole to hide in, I knew arguing would only make me look like a rube. I drew out what few coins I had in my pocket and dropped them in front of my would-be landlord. He didn’t so much pick them up as pass his hand over them and make them vanish. He passed me a key with a numbered tag attached and gestured down the street.
“Thanks,” I said.
If it was possible to nod frighteningly, he managed it. “Of course. Sleep well, young sir.”
As I walked out the door to follow his directions, I heard him say to himself, “Such a nice plump little bunny…”
As I walked down the street toward my new home, I deliberately lowered my ears to protect the back of my neck. I didn’t believe in the undead. They were myth. They were. But just in case…
The room was simply furnished: a single bed, a stool, and a lighting sconce. I’d fill it up again soon enough. Everyone needed handymen in this modern age. But I left work for tomorrow. Stripping off all the clothes and sundries I could manage without collapsing in exhaustion, I threw myself onto the bed. Spooky neighborhood or not, sleep took me before I could count even two sheep.
The sun rose on a bright All Saints Day. And I had no idea that it heralded the dawn of a new adventure…