Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Ethics of Doctor Meldi

            He arrived, as most did, by boat. The doctor always took his cane with him – a short rod with a blue glass bead at the top - even though he had no need of it to walk in ordinary conditions. Still, with the wind howling over the harbor, he was not sorry to have it as he made his way down the gangplank. Even a young man might lose his footing on a day like this. He was not from the NEC originally, hailing instead from Vastanos, that last living remnant of the once-great nation of Vansa, whose mainland was now referred to only as “The Wastes.” He had long ago learned to tolerate the cold of northern Elderland, but it was merely toleration, and not a preference of climate. As a young man, he had bounced between Narcia, Hosos, Arkos Province, and back west to Arizradna before he took the plunge and went as east as one could go to settle in the North East Colony. Meldi had never married, but he valued his solitude, even if he did not consider himself an introvert. To an extent, his practice required some degree of isolation, but it was not inconceivable to him that that isolation had been what had drawn him to the field in the first place.
            As he left the boat – a coast hugging ferry, really – and walked into the harbor of Port O’James, Dr. Meldi took a deep breath. He had not been back here in a long time.
            Security had been tightened in light of the recent events, but Meldi was confident that anything that he carried that did not adhere to the strict contraband lists would appear to be nothing unusual to the harbor security agents. Meldi had packed light – four shirts, two pairs of pants, a week’s worth of underwear and socks. His equipment would seem to be just a laptop computer, a somewhat fancy fountain pen, and a few medical books.
            The risks of what he intended to do were great, but he did not walk into the town with any sense of guilt. He had examined his own ethics and found them to be sufficient, though he doubted others would see them this way. He was nervous, but he had promised himself that he would not turn back, and that his actions were a necessity. These were trying times, and even though he felt he was in the right, his conscience had been prodded and tested. Indeed, he had already crossed one of his own lines by contacting Ana. It was justified, certainly. He had no qualms about tracking the draugr that pursued her, but he had made a promise to the Sweeneys all those years ago that he would only maintain the kind of contact with their daughter that a family doctor would.
            Perhaps Ana’s totality was a breach of ethics. Meldi’s field of research was, to put it lightly, taboo, but once again, there was justification. Why let parents suffer the loss of two children? Why allow a young girl to be taken away in the spring of her life? Often it was said that such tragedies were part of the ineffable plans of the gods, but Meldi had always rejected that logic. Ashtor had never cared about the North East Colony, and the one god that did pay the small, remote country any mind was only interested in killing everyone in it. The devout gave the gods far too much credit.
            Besides, any traditional medical doctor would do whatever they could to revive a patient. Meldi had merely moved the threshold a little farther, refusing to give up at brain death.
            They never recovered the boy. He sank too deep. But he had gotten to Ana less than twelve hours after it happened. Sometimes he wondered, had the boy had been found, if he would have attempted to revive both siblings. Being responsible for two separate subjects might have been overwhelming. What if one had been as successful as Ana, and the other brought back as a shambling mockery? The resultant guilt and recriminations… fate had made things simpler for him.
            Ana had been an experiment, and one that had filled him with trepidation, but seeing the results assured him that it had been the right thing to do. He restored life from death. Was the symbol of medicine not a chthonic serpent raised up around a staff, a symbol of death giving way to life?
            Were the world aligned in such a way to receive his accomplishments, Meldi would be renowned for pioneering a form of necromancy that rejected the cruelty of the Airbright method. But figures like Paul Airbright and Mogra Thesh had irrevocably painted the practice as the work of madmen.
            This thought of Thesh, known now as the Bone King, crossed his mind just as he passed by the ruined dock. He had read about the explosion of the ship from the Wastes, but he had not realized just how much damage it had caused. Construction crews appeared to be entirely rebuilding one of the piers, and farther out from that one, there were still signs of damage.
            Meldi followed the other passengers into the customs house, a fine old stone building, though he was relieved to discover that inside, it had the appearance, and most importantly, the central heating system, of a modern building.
            “Anything to declare?” asked the customs official, a middle-aged woman who looked like she had been bored too long to show it anymore.
            “No.” A lie was a breach of ethics there, but it served his greater purpose.
            “What is your reason for visiting Port O’James?” Not long ago, this sort of rigmarole was for foreign visitors only, and the NEC had thankfully developed a liberal culture that was willing to accept a naturalized citizen like himself as a local. But the Governor General had instituted emergency measures in response to the undead.
            “I am here to meet with Mayor Harlaw.”
            The woman looked up. Meldi took some satisfaction in rousing her from her usual tedium.
            “Do you have an appointment? Hold on,” she said. This was clearly not something for which there was protocol. In immediate retrospect, he should have just said “business” and then walked to the Mayoral Hall, but his statement (was it a brag?) has started wheels turning that he could not stop.
            Regardless of this slight miscalculation, four hours later, Meldi found himself sitting in the waiting room for the mayor’s office. The Mayoral Hall, situated next to the far less attractive Town Hall, was a pleasant old building – tasteful, perhaps a little larger than a city of its size warranted – and it was relatively quiet. It was a far cry from Port Sang, where one could hardly imagine a stranger could ask to see the mayor and speak to him the same day.
            Mayor Harlaw’s secretary invited him into the office. The Mayor was at his desk, eyes down on some sort of paperwork. He finished signing it and then looked up. “Doctor… Medley?”
            “Meldi. Hello, Mayor Harlaw.” Meldi extended his hand. They shook.
            “What brings you to me, Doctor Meldi?”
            “I wish to speak to you about Ana Sweeney,” said Meldi, and noted the immediate tension that became apparent in the Mayor’s face.
            “Ana Sweeney. Yes, well, there’s an ongoing investigation, but you’ll have to talk to the militia about that…”
            “No, I’m sorry, Mayor, I am not looking for information. I wish to provide some.”
            The mayor sat back, now looking Meldi over more intently. “Go on.”
            “Ana Sweeney is, technically speaking, undead. But she is not a draugr. She is not a thrall to anybody. Physically, she is brain dead, but her spirit was reconnected to her in such a way that her own personality, intelligence, and self-control were restored, and aside from her brain, her body continues to function normally. She is, for all intents and purposes, a living woman, and no threat to you or your town.”
            Harlaw listened quietly to this, and then waited several seconds before responding.
            “Doctor Meldi,” he replied. “How could you possibly know all of this?”
            Meldi sat back in his chair and crossed his legs. “Because I am the one who raised her from the dead.”

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Ice Chest

            There was a time when the Rookery was a little more trusting of its own thieves. Before the Brother’s War in Narcia, the Rookery was really committed to its primary mission – to steal, and thus fill the nation’s treasury. But in the thousand years since Retrein’s neighbor to the south clashed in civil war, Retrein had grown a little wary.
            The historical perspective in Narcia tended to paint the Brother’s War in a kinder light, seeing it as the growing pains that birthed the Republic. The people of Retrein focused more on the subsequent ten years of dictatorship that rivaled the Sardok Fascist period for brutality. Many of Tartin’s countrymen were descendants of those who had fled the tyranny of the “Restoration League” that took power after the deaths of Narcia’s rival kings.
            The Rookery had been forced to transform itself when their former ally – indeed, their sole ally – became a legitimate threat to them. Rumor had it that it was at this time that the position of Lord Crow had been created.
            Fearing infiltration by enemies, the Rookery did not give as much immediate trust to its own thieves, or at least it was careful to check in on itself. So while Tartin was not without some authority within its halls, it proved difficult to attain Chris Thatch’s whereabouts.
            The Rookery did not trust Tartin, but that distrust was reflected. With a mole on the inside, Tartin could not seek out a superior authority. If he asked about Thatch, the man could be killed (and Tartin would be putting himself in the spotlight.)
            So Tartin requested repeated “PAAs” – lists of candidates for expeditions. He continued to do so until Thatch’s file came up (thankfully, the mole had not removed it – which boded well for Thatch’s wellbeing.) Tartin committed the contact information – a method of securing a meeting – and then announced that the team lead had already made her selections.
            It was still bright when Tartin left the Rookery. It was spring, and as far north as they were, the days were likely to grow very long. He would meet Thatch in Exbrooke, where the Vinely flowed down from the hills to join with the Lockey. Exbrooke had an almost rustic feel, despite being part of the city. The old buildings there were made of rough-hewn stone, and there were more parks than city blocks, or so it seemed.
            Tartin took a seat on a bench not far from a small cafĂ© on the edge of the park. He looked out at the trees that stood there, rather far from one another, but large enough that they created a sort of leafy ceiling that made the day seem overcast despite it being sunny. The contact method was encoded: “Three for a loop, one for a stab, and twice in the mists.” Tartin did the calculation in his head and walked over to the dark hawksthorne tree near the park’s western edge.
            Tartin checked for the small hollow at the base of the tree, and then slid the black crow’s feather form his pocket and placed it there. But as he did, he realized that the hollow was already occupied. There was a note, sealed in a waxed paper bag.
            The note was simply coded, so that Tartin could nearly read it as quickly as if it were written plainly. “Kilarny, or whoever sees this – they have shown interest in me. Cannot go dark yet. Need to confirm and pass on vital information. I believe the House is involved. I am waiting in the cottage.”
            The cottage had been in Thatch’s files. It was a small house, also in Exbrooke. Tartin reached inside his jacket to remind himself that the gun was still there. His instincts had been right. Thatch was in danger. The note was not dated. Thatch had been to Narcia and back since Kilarny’s death, but Tartin could not be sure when in the intervening months the note had been placed there.
            It was worth checking into it.

            Four Eyes took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Six Coins was due back by this point. He had received the message two days earlier. Four Eyes had no idea if his superior was returning triumphant or fleeing for his life. He had been in isolation, so the usual chatter was hard to come by.
            He was supposed to meet with Six Coins in Exbrooke, where his superior kept his townhouse. The airship from Hosos should have landed. Indeed, in precisely one minute, Six Coins was supposed to be seated across a desk from him, but as of yet, there had been no contact.
            The townhouse was pleasant enough, though Four Eyes imagined that a man with the kind of riches that Six Coins had might be inclined to greater opulence. House Agent or no, it was obvious that Six Coins was old money. RAS, the second son of a Baron, it was probably only the House that kept him from joining the Court of Peers, though Four Eyes could not speculate on why the House would not want an Agent there.
            Perhaps there are already too many.
            Six Coins’ manservant, a stiff upper lip named Crimms, approached him with a glass of gin on a tray, accompanied by a note. “What is this?”
            “I have just received a message from Sir Roderick’s valet. The note is a message that I am to convey to you from my master.”
            Four Eyes took the drink and then opened the note.
            It read: “There’s a hole dug up in Murleg’s Bog.”
            Four Eyes dropped the glass, spilling the gin all over what he had to assume was a very expensive rug.
            “I must go,” he told Crimms, and he left without his coat.

            “Hello?” Tartin knocked again. A failure to answer the door was no reason to jump to conclusions. A man hiding out, waiting to be relieved for months, would still need to occasionally be unavailable. For all he knew, Thatch was sitting on the toilet.
            But it had been fifteen minutes, and now that he was this close, Tartin was getting anxious. He peeked into the window. There was nothing that odd – a dining room on one side of the house and a living room on the other. They were neat, but that was hardly damning.
            He went around to the back of the house. The back yard overlooked a craggy hill that sloped down into the Vinely. The yard was too rocky to have a real lawn of grass, which unfortunately made it hard to determine if the house was abandoned.
            He went to the back door and knocked. Still no response. Then he looked down.
            The wood around the door’s lock had been broken.
            Tartin drew his gun. He opened the door and stepped inside.
            Now that he was inside, Tartin grew aware of the amount of dust coating everything. He stepped through the back foyer and into the kitchen. There were no dirty dishes, no rubbish in the bins, or rubbish bags for that matter. The strangest thing in the room was that the electric icebox was missing – its nook an empty gap.
            The top floor was similarly undisturbed. The bed was made, and the library was still filled with books. The only other oddity on this floor was that the office was clearly missing a computer – the monitor, keyboard, and mouse were all still there –only the computer itself was missing.
            Someone had cleaned up here. There was a faint scent of ammonia, or perhaps something else…
            Tartin’s heart was beating rather strongly, but he pressed on. Thatch had likely gotten impatient and gone dark. The broken lock on the back… he did not have an explanation for that, but it could have happened after Thatch ghosted.
            Tartin finally went to the basement door. The building was likely empty, but he gripped his gun just the same. Gently, Tartin turned the handle and then pushed the door open.
            Light. The light was on down here. Tartin took a deep breath.
            Slowly, Tartin descended the stairs. There was a cellar door that led to the back yard. He kept that door in mind, should there be something here that might prevent him from exiting the way he entered.
            The basement was plain, with a concrete floor and a few metal pipes leading down from the house. There was almost nothing down here except for the icebox from the kitchen.
            Or at least he thought it might be from the kitchen. Yet as he approached the appliance, it struck him that this was really more of an ice chest, meant to be opened from the top.
            Tartin looked around the basement again, just to be sure there was nothing else to see. And then he opened the chest.
            Thatch’s body was crammed inside. It was covered in dirt and frozen mud. Tartin gasped and stepped back, nearly dropping the lid back down. Thatch had been shoved inside with great force. Some of his bones were broken. Tartin forced himself to look a little closer, seeing the gore of Thatch’s ravaged throat.
            How long had he been here? That would be hard to tell. But he would have to call this in to the Rookery at once, and explain his actions later.

            Tartin closed the ice chest, relieved that he did not have to look on that grotesque sight, but as it turned out, he needed not have bothered, as it was at that moment that the lights in the basement went dark.

(Copyright Daniel Szolovits 2014)