The characters in the story of Aftertown don’t know that they’re characters at all. Their lives are real to them and unfold in an unfailingly ordinary fashion. Time is marked according to a calendar of days, but no day can exist outside of a numbered graphic novel frame. And no none can escape form the sequence of frames, drawn by an unknowable hand, and sometimes narrated by an equally unknowable voice.
There are, however, individuals like Matthew Roseland, Shamus Guild member. He’s a private detective able to move from frame to frame with a freedom other characters in the story do not possess. This freedom to move back and forth, from one moment to the next, makes him an outcast, but also provides him with unique insights into the criminal intrigues of the smoky dark distopic urban landscape of Aftertown.
* * * * *
Frame #11 (November 21, 1912, 1am): There’s back alley gravel under my feet. I lean a shoulder against a damp mossy redbrick wall, and light a hero. I toss the match. There’s a flask of Roaring Girl in my pocket. I tell myself it’s for later, but my gut says now. For me, what’s about to happen isn’t political. I’m just practicing my trade.
A few feet away, the street’s busy with the delirious energy of an Imperial Fetish Guild celebration. There’s a band of drums and flutes. There’re fireworks and banners denouncing the fictitious Chan Cult. A Priest is carried on a parade float.
The procession passes beneath machine gun blister turrets, swelling out of the upper floors of buildings along the way. The Priest is surrounded on the float by adoring virgin boys and girls, food of sorts for him and the Guild. They’ve been drugged. And were provided by their parents – some ardent, some very afraid.
It’s quite a show, but I’m laying low. Staying off the scanners. There’s still an Intel Sect Executive Warrant out for my arrest. My Shamus Guild credentials have been revoked. Now the badge I carry isn’t worth the chrome plated aggregate it’s made from.
The Deterrent Guild is looking for me, of course. But I’m untouchable. The Executive Warrant makes me the property of Intel Sect. Only an executive member of Intel Sect can arrest or detain me. Beat cops know it. I can spit in their eye with impunity, and regularly do. It’s come close a couple of times, but they lack my mobility.
Inquisitor Guild agents are in the crowd. That’s why I’m here. They’re looking for a Resistance Over-Deputy by the name of Nadia Trimmell. A woman getting too good at her job, exposing the Imperial Guild System for what it is, propelled by lies and soaked in blood. But she won’t be worth a damn if the High Inquisitor get his hooks into her. He’ll tear her to pieces in interrogation, and then try and execute her as a member of the Chan Cult. That’s where the propelled by lies part comes in.
I check my watch. Dates and times repeat themselves here, or arrive out of sequence. But based on the best information from the last frame, Nadia Trimmell should be running by me about now. I drop the hero and step out of the alley, onto the sidewalk. There’s commotion in the crowd, up the block. Menacing shouts for someone to stop. Gun fire. People screaming. Bodies being pushed off the sidewalk, onto the street. The crowd panics. It turns my way and begins to stampede. I pull out my revolver and aim straight ahead. The stampede detours round me.
In a moment, there she is. A short black haired woman in black overalls, her hair tied up in a red scarf. Nadia Trimmell. She sees my drawn weapon and stops, looking confused – which way now? I holster the gun and hold out my hand.
“Roseland?” she says.
My reputation precedes me.
“Let’s go,” I say, and take her hand.
We head back down the alley, running. There’s a backdoor to an abandoned shop up ahead. I scouted it out ahead of time. Out of range of the nearest surveillance shytube. That’s all I know. I didn’t have time to check it out thoroughly. If we go through the door, we could be in Hell.
There’s gunfire behind us. Bullets are striking walls, lamp standards and old signage hanging on brackets above our heads. It’s just up ahead, a few feet. As we run, I push her sideways through the door I’ve left ajar. We both fall into a black basement. She’s fallen onto the filthy floor. In the dim light, I can see that we’re surrounded by hundreds of unused mannequins, watching us closely. I grab her hand and pull her to her feet.
“I’ve never done this with a woman before,” I say.
She looks at me, surprised and frightened.
I grasp her other hand so that now I’m holding both. Then I say, “Here we go, baby. Close your eyes. Sometimes there’s sparks….”
It’s true. I never have done this with a woman before. Or anyone else. Moving from frame to frame has always been a solo act.
Frame #19 (November 22, 1912, 10pm): In a second, we’re standing in a different frame, out of doors under a full moon. We’re still holding hands. Her hair’s a little messy. My hat and Aquascutum are a little crocked. But we made it.
“What just happened?” she says.
“We survived,” I say.
“We need to find Fernsby.”
“I know,” I say, sounding defeated already. “But that means crashing the Ministry of Allegory.”
Then there’s a voice behind us. “Well, me mates, what do we ‘ave here?”
I turn round. It’s Chalk, leader of the Terminus Boy Punks. Street gang deluxe, as they like to call themselves. He’s surrounded by his cohorts. His jacket and pants are black leather. His face is deathly pale in the full moonlight, the result of the white lead makeup all of the Boy Punks smear on their faces. Tonight, his tall laminated Mohawk is purple.
“Which Guild are you a stooge for now?” I say. “Fetish or Inquisitor?”
“Never mind that.” says Chalk. “Yous two ain’t going nowheres.” He smiles, revealing his rust coloured teeth, filed into points. Then he draws his .50 calibre Crossly Autofield revolver. “We’ve been requested to remove yous two from the picture, we ‘ave.”
Chalk aims and cocks his Crossly, well-oiled and deadly. I look wearily at Nadia Trimmell, and sigh.
“Close your eyes, sugar,” I say. “Here we go again….”
* * * * *
Frame #17 (November 22, 1912, 8:45pm): The High Inquisitor stands beneath an awning. But the wind blows sheets of rain even there. He’s drenched.
A black car with the Inquisitor Guild insignia pulls up to the curb, and he gets inside.
“You’re late,” he says to the driver.
The driver knows otherwise, but says nothing.
“Ministry of Allegory,” the Inquisitor says. “Grand Sanctity Entrance.”
“Shortcut or through the town?”
“Shortcut,” says the Inquisitor, looking out of the window.
His wire frame eye glasses are tinted blue and rain speckled. Rain drips off of his hat, into his lap and onto a black leather attaché case, as he takes a small black note book out of his breast pocket, and begins to leaf through the pages. Name after name. Each followed by brief but incriminating notes. Details of theoretical statecraft and half-formed ideas, made fanatical by nonconformity. Snatched from out of the air to feed variance interpreters. Tertiary ciphers contained on reels in their subterranean vaults. Cold, frank analysis. Death to careless talkers and radical enthusiasms.
The driver is competent and knows the town, avoiding the Love Marches and the throngs surrounding the blood soaked Sacrifice Steeples. In a short time, the car arrives at the stately Ministry of Allegory building, rising only two stories above the sidewalk. But hiding ten stories beneath the ground. To the passerby, the building is grand but introverted, watched over by surveillance dirigibles, machine guns and powerful searchlights tracing figure eights on the low overcast in the night sky. Few can know what goes on inside.
The vehicle slows to a stop at the Grand Sanctity Entrance. “Don’t return until I call,” he tells the driver. “And try to find cigarettes.”
He exits the vehicle, and climbs the wide granite steps. The massive brass and crystal doors open for him, and he walks past the armed guards. Inside, he removes his hat. The lobby, a cathedral of gold and artificial indirect light. His footsteps echo as he makes his way to the elevators.
“Influence Level E,” he tells the operator as he steps into a car.
The doors close, and the lift descends. He looks at his shoes as the floors slipped by.
On a floor below him, a man is cuffed to a chair. His mind crippled by extreme fatigue, deafening generators and clacking actuator panels. Choking on the damp, greasy air.
A sacrifice, the inquisitor smiles. Nearly ready for the upper level incinerators.
“Influence Level E,” the operator says as they slow.
The elevator doors slide open, and he hears the muffled sound of heavy machinery. A guard sits at attention at a desk.
“Where is the prisoner?” the High Inquisitor says to the Warden, there to greet him, as he steps off of the elevator. He has put down his attaché case, and is removing his tight black kid skin gloves. His eyes are cold and impassive behind the blue lenses.
“Hall five, sir,” the Warden says.
“Eighty hours, sir.”
The Warden picks up a clipboard from the guard’s desk, and hands it to the High Inquisitor. It’s the most current assessment. The name on the document is Fernsby, Albert H.
Fernsby the silent, but powerful. Fernsby the key operative. Fernsby, who may hold an inventory of sleeper cells in his head. He is the jewel, the prize.
The Inquisitor reads the data, and cocks an eyebrow.
“He’s a tough one,” he says.
“They all break eventually, sir.” the Warden says. “They’re not like us. They’re weak.”
“You have doubts, sir?” There’s inference in the Warden’s voice. He sounds sly and slightly fanatical. The voice of State sanctioned mob rule.
“If I do, they’re based on experience. How long have you practiced as an Inquisitor, Warden?”
“I never have, sir.” Now the Warden’s face reddens.
“Take a bit of advice then,” the High Inquisitor says, “since you seem to be the zealous type. It’s the zealots that always die first, when the State runs out of the usual victims. Zealots are the easiest to spot in a crowd. They’re prone to dangerous overstatement and they always believe they’re invulnerable.”
“Best to just concentrate on keeping your buttons shiny. You don’t want to be tied to a chair in Hall 5 one day, do you?”
“Do you have cigarettes?”
“They’re forbidden, sir.”
“That wasn’t the question, Warden.”
“No. No cigarettes, sir.”
The Inquisitor drops the clipboard onto the desk. It makes a loud flat sound. The Warden looks down at his wringing hands.
Two guards stand at the door to Hall 5. On it are the words Tertiary Cipher Hall Five. The Inquisitor inserts a key, and enters.
Inside, the noise of switches and gears is deafening. He breaths deeply the foul air. There is row upon row of cipher engines, as far as the eye can see . Cogs and wheels coding and decoding wire transmissions, radio, telephone and electronic dispatches. Two stories high, miles of vacuum tube circuits the cooling systems can never adequately cool. Nothing escapes the wiretaps, screen mesh collectors and massive rotary surveillance discs. Illicit secrets are impossible, all secrets are illicit.
He comes to stand before Fernsby’s slumped body in a metal chair. Fernsby’s a small balding man. Hands cuffed behind him and ankles clamped to chair legs. This is the one for tonight. The High Inquisitor kicks Fernsby in the shin. He stirs. Some have begun to scream and rave by now; others stare at nothing. The ones who stare are usually irretrievable.
But some, like Fernsby, enter an unconscious state, resembling sleep. Despite the roaring noise and disorientation, the thirst and hunger. These had the highest rate of survival, in his estimation. And Fernsby had scored unusually high on the Foster/Ashby Extreme Duress Functioning Evaluation, only two hours earlier.
“A vacant Influence Room?” the Inquisitor says to one of the guards, as he exits the cipher hall.
“Room B, sir.”
“Make the transfer.”
The Inquisitor is in Room B when Fernsby arrives, hauled in in an upright position, feet dragging behind. He’s conscious but very weak, as he’s fixed into a high back chair with restraints. The guards leave, closing the door after them.
The room is small, and the walls are hung with the tackle of torture. A strong beam of light is focussed on Fernsby.
The Inquisitor reads a check list and notices that the junior Inquisitors who conducted early stage interviews neglected the teeth. He surveys the wall and sees a dental drill, and takes comfort in its presence.
“Are you awake?” he says, kicking the Fernsby again.
“I’ll take that to mean yes,” the High Inquisitor says.
Fernsby says nothing.
“May I read you something from The Inquisitors’ Codex?” the High Inquisitor asks, with a book in his hand. “Do you know what a codex is?”
“A book.” Fernsby sounds drunk with torture.
“Interesting. Knowledge of books is a capital offence.”
“Then execute me.”
“No no no,” the inquisitor says, holding an index finger aloft. “Let me read. For it is out of love that you must not accept the ready confession. The easy confession is always a lie, and you must never let a Subject in your care die with a lie upon his lips. Only the confession obtained under the influence of blunt force is an honest confession. Apply this tenet out of love for your Subject, so that he may ascend into splendor.”
“Do you believe that?” Fernsby is looking up now, into the eyes of the High Inquisitor.
“No,” the High Inquisitor says. “It is, itself, a lie.”
“Then why live by it?”
“Because it is a good lie. It is a lie that sustains the Imperial Guilds. It is a lie that, even in the darkest of times, creates truths in its telling.”
“You’re sick,” says Fernsby. “You and the whole Imperial Guild system.”
“So your polemics and rhetoric have indicated,” says the High Inquisitor. “And in no uncertain terms, I’ll add. Tell me, do you and your kind ever simply say what’s on your mind, without puffing out your chests and hammering your fists on something. Surely a valid idea stands on its own without all of that. Or is it that you’re afraid that the square peg of your philosophy might fail to fit the round hole of reality.”
The prisoner slumps in his chair.
The High Inquisitor goes to his attaché case. It lies on a desk. He opens it and takes out a package of heroes and a book of matches.
“Do you smoke?” he asks Fernsby.
Fernsby looks up, and licks his lips.
“Where did you get them?” he asks.
“I’m a High Inquisitor. I can get most anything.” He lights his cigarette, and says, “Would you like one?”
The Inquisitor lights a second cigarette and holds it for Fernsby to smoke.
“We need you to name names, Mr Fernsby. Accomplices, partners in crime. Why not just talk, so we can get this over with. I can lie, and say I really worked you over. It’s a half truth, anyway. You should see yourself.”
Fernsby coughs on the stale cigarette smoke, and says, “Just kill me. You know that I don’t know any operatives by name. And even if I did, you’ve seen my Foster/Ashby results. You know I won’t break.”
The High Inquisitor pushes a button on an intercom.
“Come in, please,” he says. “Bring a head strap.”
Two guards come through the door.
“Secure his head.”
The Inquisitor takes the dental drill from the wall. He then sits down in a wheeled desk chair and maneuvers in close to Fernsby. He tests the drill, activating it with a foot pedal. Its sound is a high pitched whine, pleasing to the High Inquisitor’s ear.
The two guards use a strap to secure Fernsby’s head to the chair’s head rest, and then force a wooden block into one side of his mouth.
The High Inquisitor pushes the foot pedal two more times for effect, and leaning forward says, “Let’s get started, shall we?”
Frame #17 (November 22, 1912, 8:45pm): Nadia Trimmell and I land in a different frame, after vanishing in front of Chalk’s eyes. He’s probably still standing there, livid at the unfairness of life.
Now we’re on a poorly lit street. I look across and see a man under an awning, attempting to shelter himself from the sheets of torrential rain. He’s tall and gaunt, wearing a sodden trench coat and a pair of blue lensed wire framed glasses. A black car arrives at the curb, the Inquisitor Guild insignia on its doors. The man gets into the back seat, and the car drives away into the night.