Authors: T. Aaron Payton
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
Night Shade Books
The Constantine Affliction
© 2012 by T. Aaron Payton
This edition of
The Constantine Affliction
© 2012 by Night Shade Books
Jacket Illustration by Mark Nelson
Jacket design by Jason Snair
Interior layout and design by Amy Popovich
All rights reserved
Edited by Ross E. Lockhart
Night Shade Books
For Tim Powers, teacher and inspiration.
Acts of Love
e called himself Adam, and all he wanted was love.
The man who was not quite a man walked across his laboratory, moving awkwardly on a leg still stiff from his accident in the Arctic long years before. His basement workspace was low, cramped, and crowded with shelves, tables, and the myriad tools of his myriad trades, but the unlovely setting only enhanced the luminous beauty of the woman on his examination table. Her hair was the color of a blackbird’s wing, her skin pale as snowy alpine peaks, her flesh still cold from the shards of ice she’d arrived packed in. There were no marks on her throat, which meant she had probably been smothered, or possibly poisoned. No matter. The chemical preparation he’d used to replace her blood had flushed away any toxins or disease she’d suffered in life.
Adam attached the hand-woven filaments of wire to her brow, and inserted a metal probe into a tiny bloodless incision over her heart. The wires ran back to a tall wooden shelf that held row upon row of earthenware jars, bubbling with caustic chemicals that combined to produce that modern marvel, captive electricity.
Others who’d attempted similar courses of scientific inquiry had been forced to rely on lightning strikes or tanks of electrified eels and fish to provide the necessary electricity, but science—that bloodless maiden, that haughty mistress, that fecund mother—had advanced since those dark days. Adam himself had perfected these batteries, which stored electricity in greater quantity and dispersed it in more controlled voltage than other designs generally available. He could easily have become wealthy by selling the innovation—the craze for electricity was still growing—but his researches were adequately funded by his patron, and beyond those needs, money did not interest him.
Truth did. Life did. Love did.
After double-checking the thick leather straps that held the slender woman to the operating table, he limped over to a pitted wooden lever fixed to the wall, at the nexus of a dozen wires. He pulled the handle down, and the room filled with a hum that tasted of lemons and a scent that sounded like chimes. Since his misadventures and near death in the Arctic sixty-five years ago, something had changed in him, and Adam’s senses were no longer like those of other men. Sound bled into taste and scent into sound, the result of strange cross-connections deep in the structure of his brain. Those changes were indicative of damage, perhaps, but he’d since lived a normal human span without suffering any further deterioration, and on balance, he considered his textured perceptions a blessing. He felt sorry for the mass of men, with their sequestered senses, seeing only the reflections of light, hearing only the vibrations of air—their experience of the world must be like listening to a single lonesome flute, while to Adam, the world was a symphony.
The woman on the table moved, limbs jerking, back arching as best it could against the bondage of the straps, but that movement alone meant nothing—a current passing through the corpse of a frog would make the beast jerk, muscles jumping and tightening, but such movement had nothing to do with
, no more than a dead branch that waved in the wind did.
After the appropriate interval, the seconds counted off in Adam’s metronomically accurate mind, he shut off the current, and the woman went limp on the table. Adam carefully removed the wires from her body and pressed his ear against her chest, between her breasts, and listened.
Her heart was beating again—the sound tasted like the brine of the sea—which meant this was, at least, not
kind of failure. Perhaps half the time, his experiments never even made it this far, the bodies of his subjects too damaged in subtle internal ways to be revived, and they simply remained dead on the table—later to be chopped up as food for the
kind of failure, or at least, the ones he kept.
He leaned forward, looking into the woman’s face, so tranquil and composed. “Arise,” he whispered, a ritual with no scientific basis, but one he indulged in nonetheless.
The woman opened her eyes. Her pupils were enormous, black chasms squeezing the irises into thin bands of impossible-to-ascertain color, but that didn’t necessarily mean she was—
“Unggaahhh!” she said, and though the pitch and timbre of her voice were individual, the quality of the moan was familiar, and brought a taste of ash and bile to his mouth. That moan was a sound of hunger, and of desperate, senseless need. She jerked her head toward him and snapped her teeth together hard enough to chip one of her own incisors, but Adam was still far faster than ordinary men, and her bite missed closing on the flesh of his cheek. She jerked her head from side to side and strained against the straps—the restraints creaked, but they held. The woman was far stronger now than she had been before her death and resurrection, using her muscles to their full potential without being troubled by pain or strain or soreness, but she was not Adam’s first subject, or even his twentieth, and the straps were strong enough, and held.
Another failure. They were all failures, so far, but love was enriched by struggle, was it not? A love that came easily might be lost easily as well, after all. Adam noted the results of the experiment in his journal, using a cipher of his own invention, then pondered. She was lovely, and it would be marvelous to keep her for his honor guard. His researches were ongoing, and if he kept her, he might someday be able to give her a truer resurrection… but no. She was
lovely, and it had been a while since Adam had sent his patron a woman who could work. His associates would not continue to bring him these poor dead girls if he did not occasionally give them some profit in return.
Adam tore off a half-sheet of paper and scratched out a brief note in a more accessible code, one that would have seemed like a meaningless and dull personal note to any reader but its intended recipient. He made his way upstairs to the ground floor of his narrow house, squeezed among warehouses not far from the widely-shunned walled area that included most of what had once been Whitechapel. He donned his hooded cloak, slipped on the plain white mask that hid his features, and cracked open the door.
Outside it was early evening on a squalid London street. The sky was already lit by the strange lights—the newspapers called them the “aurora anglais”—that had appeared a month before, and that some blamed on the Queen’s new lover and his rumored atmospheric experiments. Adam did not care about the lights, or their cause, in more than an abstract way. His concerns were far more earthbound.
He called out, “You, boy,” to no one in particular, and a dirty-faced urchin emerged from a shadow, saying “Sir?” but not coming close enough to touch. Adam was careful to take his special deliveries only late at night and through the tunnels beneath his house, but even so he was the subject of wild rumors—that he was a vivisectionist, that he’d been horribly scarred in an experiment (hence the mask), that he was a Peer afflicted with the Constantine Affliction (also hence the mask), and other such speculations. But despite their misgivings, a few of the urchins who squatted nearby had learned he was good for the occasional coin, and he usually found one brave enough to approach him. “Do you know the sweet shop on Hay Street?”
The boy nodded.
“Give this letter to the shopkeeper.” He held out the sheet, and the boy quickly snatched it, darting in and out of seizing range as fast as he could. Foolish boy. Adam could catch him in a flicker if he wished. Before injuring his leg, Adam had been fast enough to run down wild deer and boar without becoming winded, and when the situation required, he could ignore the pain of old wounds and reach nearly those speeds again.
Adam tossed the boy a coin—a pittance, by Adam’s standards, but enough to make the boy a little king for a day, or else a target of those who preferred theft to running errands. “Be quick now.”
“Want I should bring word back?” This boy was bolder, or perhaps merely more desperate for money, than most of his fellows.
“No. There will be no reply.” None was necessary. The arrangements were now routine. The man at the sweet shop would send word to his employer, who would in turn send men in the dark of night to collect the latest failed experiment and—Adam hoped—drop off another subject. There were always dead young women to be found in London, especially in the taverns and gambling halls of Southwark, the narrow lanes of Alsatia, in the lamplit alleys of Limehouse, in all the myriad brothels of the East End—at least, those portions that had not been walled off to save the city from the seething chemical reactions and ever-burning fires inside.
Adam returned to his front hall, already weary at the thought of the labors that lay before him. He would feed the woman some meat—he had no human flesh to hand just now, and in the absence of spare corpses, he fed the mindless reanimated ones offal, because it was cheap: kidneys, lungs, brains. After she was fed, he would etherize her into unconsciousness. Fortunately, her kind still breathed, and ether still had its effect. To feed a living person and then anesthetize them was dangerous, an invitation to vomit and subsequent aspiration, but the dead had iron stomachs.
When she was unconscious, he would cut off her hair (reserving it to be fashioned into a wig by other hands and then sold—his associates had so many ways to profit), remove the top of her skull, and make the necessary changes in her brain. The device he would implant there took advantage of recent advances in magnetic technology, and had a most striking effect on behavior. The ravenous, inhumanly strong creature he’d created would awaken biddable, docile, and capable of following simple instructions. Despite the semblance of obedient life, she would remain empty of self and incapable of thought or true emotion. Even so, Adam did not like to think long on the uses to which she would be put by his associates—placed in one of the lowliest of the now-illegal brothels and passed off as a living girl, albeit one heavily drugged… He shuddered.
Adam twitched aside the curtain by his door and looked into the empty street, brooding on the city beyond, his thoughts turned from love toward the filth of humanity. London, victim of three Great Fires and innumerable smaller ones, the eternal Phoenix rebuilt every time, even after the alchemical blaze of 1829. Parts of that fire still flickered greenishly, and might burn forever as far as anyone knew, in the walled-off section of the city. People who slept too near the contained area reportedly suffered horrible dreams and, sometimes, miraculous healing, but Adam put little stock in such anecdotes.
Despite their city’s repeated immolations, the people of London still breathed, mated, gambled, wrote, composed music, drank laudanum, smoked opium, stabbed one another, studied the great poets, built houses, danced at parties, delivered unto him their beautiful dead… and eternally disappointed him. There were times when he missed the long years he’d spent essentially hibernating in the Arctic, brooding and waiting for a death that never came.
The city, he mused, seemed almost to be a vast experimental chamber, with Adam as its subject.
And its aim, to discover how long it would take for his desire for love to curdle into something altogether darker.
of Two Minds
embroke “Pimm” Halliday woke with an abominable pain in his head, a throat as dry as week-old bread, and last night’s final regurgitation perfuming his breath. He rang for his valet—the ringing of the bell almost enough to make his skull shatter, he fancied—but the cursed man did not appear in the doorway with a cup of tea and a solicitous smile, or even at all.