I should report the bite to the Ministry of the Undead, but I don’t want them to go after my family. They’d do it, too. I know. I work for the Ministry.
Just at the moment of breakthrough as well. The Cargsguile plates needed to be negatively charged in order for the thing to work. Thanks to our research, we know that cell death occurs at a constant rate, given a specific decrease of brain wave frequency. And how, pray tell, is one supposed to record such a thing with positively charged plates? An unbridled ass I am!
I reached in to remove the plates not more than five minutes ago, and Arthur—otherwise known as specimen 325-G, the rotter we procured for experimentation—took a healthy chaw at my wrist.
I now have one hour and fourteen minutes before liquefactive necrosis occurs. I can already detect the aroma of living guts from passersby on the street below.
In an hour and fourteen minutes, if I’ve not devoured my apprentice (Jenkins, the poor sod, is on errand at the moment), I will be handed over to the Biomech Department and fitted with a vest and breech of alloyed copper, and half my useless brain will be replaced by the Department’s latest patent: Fenton’s Automation Engine, or FATE. If I’m lucky, I’ll wind up as a swab on some ballon-guerre. If not, it’s the mines for certain.
An hour and fourteen minutes to register the patent on my prognosis device. It’s a rather poetic dilemma. But if I don’t get the patent, that means no subsidies for my family. And by virtue of the New Revised Poor Law they’ll be herded into some d—ned parish corral before they’re even finished mourning. I can’t go with that on my mind. Clara will forgive me for not spending my last hour with her.
I scribble a hasty note to Jenkins on a mercury slate, and I tack the thing where he’ll find it. I marvel at my ability to sum up the whole story in three incomplete sentences and a postscript: Bitten. Prognosis device a success. Off to obtain patent and die. P.S. Don’t get too close to Arthur.
As I leave the lab, I’m assaulted by a barrage of sights and sounds and smells, and everything is screaming. I hear a voice like some long lost friend calling me from the depths of memory awash in the din.
A vendor is roasting cobnuts outside the Patent Office. I’m going to miss the smell of cobnuts, as I’m going to miss the summer airship rides over Lily Field, and the sweetness of the flowers in that purified air.
There’s a small line in the office. There’s always a small line. The ceiling is low and the room is cramped and because the day is dim the gaslights are turned up, and these are sucking all the atmosphere out of the place. The man in front of me is holding plans for what looks like a perpetual motion machine. I can smell the alcohol in his liver.
It’s finally my turn. As I make my way to the window, a clerk with a tallow-coloured face pushes a stack of sheets across the counter.
“Fill these out, won’t you please? The time is three-seventeen p.m., third of June. When you’re through, hand in forms C-24 through 29, then you’ll need to go to the Patent Data Logging and Docketing Agency in St. Giles to apply for your Ministry waiver and to pick up a voucher and punch card. They’ll assign you a docket number. Bring the voucher and the punch card and the docket number back here and submit the rest of the forms at that time. Thank you. Next on line, please!”
“St. Giles? That’s on the other side of town! And besides, I don’t require a waiver. I can pay the application fee here and now.”
“You work for the Ministry, do you not?”
“Right, sir, I could tell that by the pin on your lapel. All those who work for the Ministry are required to wear that little pin on their lapel. It’s a lovely pin, sir. A lot of prestige in that. Although I did hear of a man what pricked himself with it while tacking it on and suffered a miserable death of tetanus eleven days later.”
“Yes, that’s very interesting, but please—”
“Ministry employees are required by law to waive their application fee, sir.”
“Very well, but how long will it take?”
“Only a few minutes to waive the fee, sir. A stamp and a smile, as we like to say.”
“No, I mean how long will it take once I bring back the waiver or voucher or whatever? How long before the patent goes through?”
“That all depends, sir. If you can get back here by four o’clock we can have your paperwork submitted by end of day.”
“Fine then, I’ll go—hold on…what do you mean submitted? ”
“Submitted for review. Next on line, please!”
“Now see here! Submitted for review? How long does it take until it’s reviewed?”
“It’s possible it can be reviewed within the hour, sir.”
“Or it’s possible, if it’s late in the day as it is, and we get a lot of applications, that it could take as long as three days, by which time you’ll be notified by wire to report to the review office in order to sign the required sheets, list your successor or successors, and receive your certificate and punch card which you’ll bring both back here to be filed duly.”
“That won’t do!”
“Well, you could send them by post, sir, though I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“No, I meant—”
At this point I catch a glimpse of a copper-breasted rotter retrieving a stack of folders from off the desk behind the clerk. The face has been applied with salts in the usual manner to retard spoilage. Like all the others, it’s a shriveled, peeling, loathsome mass of broken skin and sparse, sticky hair. And at the front of its scalp, the FATE retrofit, glistening sickly in the gaslight glow.
“Next on line, please!”
A throat clears behind me. The larynx smells of game. I turn to the gentleman and beg his pardon and patience. Then it’s back to the clerk.
“Is there any way the whole process can be…expedited?”
“Yes. You see, I need this patent granted by four o’clock; no later than four-fourteen.”
The clerk looks as though I’d asked him to tell me the nature of man’s existence. “Oh, dear,” he says, and licks the corner of his mouth. “You best be on your way to St. Giles, sir. Get back here as soon as possible. What more I can tell you beyond that, I don’t know. Next on line, please!”
I glance at my timepiece. Exactly forty-five minutes left. By now the bite on my wrist is beginning to bleed through my bandage. I feel it sticking to the inside of my cuff.
In disgust, I hail a hansom. In disgust, I arrive at St. Giles Circus twenty minutes later. I’m in St. Giles Circus because the driver doesn’t know where the Patent Data Logging and Docketing Agency is located. In disgust, I beg the pardon of a man in business attire who is snorting a great deal of snuff from a wide expanse of webbing between his thumb and forefinger. At my approach, he claps the box shut and stiffens like a soldier.
“The habit’s an old and haughty one, squire,” he says. “You’ll not find a sharper wit for investing than yours truly despite it, look high and low, you won’t.”
“I’m not interested in your habit or your abilities. I need to know where I might find the Patent Data Logging and Docketing Agency.”
“Well then,” he says, brightening, “you might find it along the dusty Kampoli road in Ceylon, where the rubber trees line up like sentries, eventually bowing down in solemn reverence to the Temple of the Tooth in the Kandyan jungle. Along same road you’ll find that famous monk who it is told walks the entire length of the path backwards from start to finish and over again all day long without cease, and who’s been at it for well on fifty-seven years now. Or you might find it at the height of an opiate revelation in the wee hours of an August morning, squire, with the scent of tombs on you from the depths of the den. Either way, you might find it, although either way you’d be terribly wrong. You will most definitely find it, however, up on Dorset, in the alleyway between the milliner’s and the thread shop.”
I’m suddenly seized with the desire to bite into his cheek, with relish, and with rage. “Thank you,” I say instead, and head off.
He’s screaming after me. “I’ll be d—ned if I’ll fully recognize the Kandyan Convention of ‘15, squire! D—ned if I didn’t lose a fortune in ink investments due to the capitulation of the weak-kneed liberals responsible for negotiating that abomination!”
I stop and I turn and the world blurs around me. I shake my head once, and at that moment realize that my jaw is distended, and the man is now cowering in terror below me. My hands are rigid and clamped onto his shoulders. My spittle has glazed the expanse of his chin.
“I didn’t mean anything by it, squire! It was an overall good thing to have occurred, the Convention! Long live the governor! I’m heartily grateful for it! No need for violence!”
I let go of him and amble away without any further discussion of the matter. My head is, as they say, spinning.
The Patent Data Logging and Docketing Agency is a dismal little cell which makes a palace of its parent on the other side of town. As I enter, a rotter with a crackling FATE module is pushing a line of dirt across the room. It looks at me. It used to be a woman. It leans in, apparently trying to smell me. The smell sense is obliterated in the retrofit, but memories are not, and a rotter that has a hearty appetite before the modification retains its lust for meat afterward, and needs to be monitored carefully. There’s a kill switch on its breast plate that delivers an electrical shock when thrown. I give it a flick, and the thing that once possibly loved a man with the frailty of a lamb convulses with a hideous series of grunts, and a yellow ichor issues from the corner of the salted lips. Something like tears come into its dead eyes. But there’s nothing in that blank slate of a face to indicate a recognition of betrayal; nothing recalls to the tattered husk of its mind the dimmest memory of a broken promise or unjust injury. I wonder where my memories will be in less than twenty-five minutes now.
“Your waiver, sir,” says the Patent Data Logging and Docketing Agency office clerk, a squinting, blinking, twittering little bee in a frock and collar, sporting an autostylus prosthetic which has the nasty habit of wheezing between strokes. “Note the date and time on the voucher. You’ll want to get that back to the Patent Office promptly.”
“And my punch card and docket number?”
“They said I’m supposed to receive a punch card and docket number.”
“Yes sir, they’ll be administered once we enter your information.”
“When will that be?”
“When, you infernal baboon?”
“No need for epithets, sir. Ministry employees ain’t exempt from civility.”
“I’m sorry. Now please, for the love of the Maker Himself, please tell me the soonest I may expect to receive my punch card.”
“And your docket number.”
“And my docket number.”
“That would be anywhere between one and three days, sir. You’ll be notified by wire.”
“That won’t do!”
“They could send it to you by post, sir, but I wouldn’t recomm—”
“No! You don’t understand!” I glance at my timepiece. “Fifteen minutes. My G-d, I have fifteen minutes. I can feel the disease eating my brain away. Don’t you see? I’ll bite into your chest! I’ll eat your wife! I’ll make fruit of your daughter’s head! I’ll eat her guts. I need this patent today! Now! Before I turn. G-d! I can feel it.” I clutch at my temples and feel a sinking, sickening depressurization, an implosion. Lethargy is beginning to weigh at my limbs. I’m not sure I know the next words I need to use.
“Bitten,” I say. I think I’m crying. “I’ve been bitten. Do you understand?”
“Ah, I was going to ask you, sir, for I noticed all that blood seeping through your cuff. Hold on, there’s a wire here what just came in. Where is it? Ah, yes. Here we are. Says here, yes, it says here folks who been bit who are inquiring into patent registry must report to the Office of the Patent Fast Track Division. You’ll go right through, sir. You really should have said something in the first place.”
“Where is it?” I think I say.
“Two doors down, sir. There’s a temporary office on the other side of the millinery.”
Upon entering the Temporary Office of the Patent Fast Track Division, I’m greeted by the amiable countenance of Jenkins, my apprentice, seated at a plain table heaped with paper in the middle of the almost empty room.
“Well, now,” he says in his usual jovial manner. “Never too late, I guess. I called you outside the lab but you just kept walking. I went in and that’s when I read your note.”
He gently takes my wrist and lifts the cuff. “Oh, dear. Ol’ Arthur really got in a good one, eh?” There’s something of a chuckle in his voice. “The Ministry is looking for you. I’ll notify them that you’re here. In the meantime, sign this form.” He slaps a single sheet before me, and pushes dip and ink across the table. “We’ll have a patent by six o’clock tomorrow evening. Under ‘successors,’” he points to a line, “I took the liberty of listing the names of your wife and children. I take it your will’s in order?”
I nod my head. I think. I think I nod.
“Very well. I also took the liberty of summoning them. Your family. They’re having tea in the back. You don’t have much time I take it?”
I think a tear is falling from my eye. I’m not too sure.
Jenkins slides his spectacles to the tip of his nose. “I learned expediency from you, sir. Now that we know the exact time until reanimation, a fast track to patents for inflicted inventors is a necessity, as it will save the government a fortune in solicitor expenses. The Patent Office is now an official subsidiary of the Ministry of the Undead, once the papers all come into order. Not to worry. It’s a matter of high priority for them, in light of recent scientific developments.” He puts a finger to his nose. Winks.
He seems to want me to say something. But I don’t know the words.
He reaches over and puts a soft hand on my shoulder. “Expediency is expediency, sir, the officials understand this.”
I make my mark upon the sheet, as the smell of guts becomes nearly too much to bear. And then I go to my family…
There’s darkness where I am…
Dahh darhheher werrr aaaerrnnngg
originally published in Black Chaos: Tales of the Zombie
Paul Lorello is a freelance writer from Ronkonkoma, New York. He recently finished his first novel and will one day write a second. His vitamin D is low. He likes science fiction and cats. He knows very little about everything.