. The Black Guard
For two days the fire burned unchecked. There was nothing to be done but watch through tears of intense emotion as those few tangible memories cherished for so long were forever taken away.
The loss of life, while tragic, seemed as though it could have been worse. The official record would list two hundred and fifty seven deaths attributed to the fire. However, if one were to consider the number reported missing that figure could easily double.
Among the dead was the city’s mayor, a bon vivant by the name of Robert Shaw, known to most as Ruddy Rob. The mayor, having left work early to attend the wedding at the Royal Oak had been one of about two dozen trapped inside when the landmark Inn succumbed so completely to the flames. Many among the working class were still angry over the recent deposing of Edmund Knickelburg, the previous mayor ousted during the Black Guard Revolt a year or so prior. He would have known what to do about the thousands left homeless.
Rutherford Commons along the north wall soon became worse than a Romanchurian festival, with tents and farmers stalls on every spot of lawn. The passages inside the city walls were filled with blankets and makeshift cots. Anyone with a home outside the area destroyed by the fire took people in. The Dunsany Institution for Social Reform in Clockhaven was no exception.
“Captain Digby,” Joseph Foehammer acknowledged as the captain of the militia was ushered into his laboratory by one of the facility’s new nurses. With the beds suddenly filled to capacity, Dr. Foehammer had been required to send for assistance. He made a mental note to learn the woman’s name so that he would know who to have reassigned. His staff had to learn he would not stand to be interrupted by petty issues.
“Why you choose to work in such a dungeon rather than upstairs is a mystery to me,” said Captain Digby. His brusque manner suggested he was upset. The militia leader nodded to the cells at the back of the lab. Thomas Chandler lay unconscious in one while in another Nelly Faulkner sat quietly watching Dr. Foehammer work. “How is the girl?”
“Still recovering,” said Joseph. “I drew some blood for an analysis to see if there might be a medical cause for her hysterical breakdown. Other than an unusually high concentration of an enzyme related to the filtration of ammonia from one’s system during the urea cycle, her blood chemistry is fine. The enzyme had not been what I was looking for but it was an interesting find. Curiously, the boy, Thomas, has the same elevated levels as well.”
“It was that damn Jacob Pekins and his frozen water factory,” said the captain. “The explosion released gas all through the west end. Everybody had to suffer the stench.”
“Interesting,” Joseph turned back to his work, searching a nearby rack for a very specific container.
“Why is that boy not bandaged and prepared for release to my custody?” The captain pointed to Thomas. “We had an agreement.”
“Because I know the boy’s mother personally,” said Joseph, distracted after finding the bottle for which he was searching. He pulled the stopper and gave the contents a sniff. “She was loyal for fourteen years and her boy is deserving of proper care.”
“Was?” Captain Dibgy questioned. His natural inclination was to be suspicious.
“Mrs. Chandler has not returned to work since the fire,” replied Joseph without hesitation. He added a few white crystals resembling rock salt to a solution inside a glass beaker resting upon a warming plate.
“Isn’t it typical of that sort.” Captain Digby shook his head.
“To which sort are you referring?”
“The sort that perpetuates the rabble.”
“I see,” said Dr. Foehammer, taking the glass beaker and holding it to the light. He narrowed his eyes to examine the viscosity. “I take it you do not consider yourself to be a member of that sort?”
“I most certainly am not of that sort.” Captain Digby composure took on the aspect of one suffering great offense over some egregious slander.
“Your sort would be— “ Joseph stopped what he was doing to look at the captain, waved his free hand and shrugged.
“The sort that has your best interests well protected, “ Captain Digby spoke with a distinct note of annoyance in his voice.
“No sir, on that point I disagree.” Joseph put down the beaker and and stood tall to look Captain Digby squarely in the eye. “Protecting my best interests is not what you do. What you do is maintain the status quo. You are nothing but a lackey for corruption— a corruption that is so ingrained people do not even recognize it for what it is.”
“Excuse me— “ Captain Digby sounded somewhat flustered by the unexpected attack on his character.
“Thomas sunk a ship,” Joseph carried on, his voice rising both in volume and intensity. “A rash move, but understandable. Aboard that foreign ship was a chess-playing automaton—”
“Please,” Captain Digby interrupted, holding up his hand with dismissive flair. “Are you going to be one of those who claims we lose our humanity if we create thinking machines?”
“Do not interrupt me again!” Joseph spoke with command. “That machine in and of itself was not the corruption. The corruption is the idea that we should strive to create such thinking machines in the first place. The human mind and body is what we should strive to improve.”
“You would be wise to show a little more grace to a former member of the Black Guard!” Captain Digby stood up and stomped his foot. The captain was so irate he had trouble controlling a discharge of spittle as he spoke. “What manner rubbish are you speaking of?”
“The only rubbish I am aware of is the rubbish you protect!” Joseph began to gesture in turn, raising his arm and waving his finger to accentuate each point. “A rubbish most foul; a rubbish that binds us in midden; a rubbish that seeps into our blood where it oozes a festering bile that preys upon our morals and the morals of our children; a parasitic rubbish; a cancerous rubbish; a rubbish that produces more rubbish and force feeds itself to us; a rubbish that has even deluded itself, as it deludes us with its base ideas and failed ideologies!”
“Great Builder!” Captain Digby exclaimed. “It’s true! ”
“What are you talking about?” Joseph sneered.
“You are mad,” said Captain Digby, having recovered his composure. His voice dropped, taking on a condescending tone. “The rumours of what’s goes on in this hospital are well known and oft repeated amongst the lower ranks. Even a cellar hermit like you must be aware of them.” The captain folded his arms and leaned back with a smug look. “Things could turn sour for you very quickly Doctor Foehammer.”
“Are you through?”
“From what I understand you are fast losing friends. I will consent to leave the boy here. You have two days and no more. One of my men shall remain to keep watch. When I return Thomas Chandler will be released whether you feel he is fit or not.”
“You should kill him,” said Nelly from her cell across the room.
“An interesting solution,” Joseph replied. He took a syringe from a drawer and inspected it for cleanliness. He then used it to draw a measured amount of liquid from the glass beaker. Perhaps the girl’s psychosis was more than just a reaction to the fire. He approached her cell. “Is that because you don’t like him?”
“No, I am saying that because I think he will be a problem,” said Nelly, eying the syringe. “What is in that?”
“Medicine,” Joseph replied. “To make you better.”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she pointed out.
“I never said there was.”