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Plight of the Transformer
A sequel novella from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8
ALTERNATIVE FORMATS KINDLE E-BOOK | PRINTED ANTHOLOGY
Plight of the Transformer, a fantastical novelette by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 6

Trouble is trouble. It isn't thrilling and it isn't a rush: it's just bad news.

I sat in a reading chair by the window, but I wasn't reading. My wrists lay in my lap, bound. My ankles were likewise tied, and knotted to my wrists for good measure. I was not gagged but I found I did not have much to say.

My captor, a beast of a man, was engaged in loading Mick's limp body into a long duffel bag. He muttered unrecognizable profanity under his breath as he fought to get the knees past the zipper. He winced and grunted and there sounded a loud cracking noise, after which Mick's legs bent freely if sickeningly. "There we go now," he coughed, wiping his muzzle on his hand as he turned about the room in search of his next task.

I said, "Should I be reassured that you've only the one duffel?"

He squinted. "Hah?"

"There's only one duffel bag. Does this mean I get to live?"

"Oh, sure. I mean, for a while. Most people end up dead sooner or later. Sooner, if you do dangerous stuff, like you and me are going to do. But I'll say nice things over the dirt when I bury you, Englishman, if it comes to that. Prayers even, if you want them."

The light was dim. I could barely see him. Outside the sky was beginning to pale in the east. Morning birds were already singing.

"What are you?" I asked.

He paused from wrestling the duffel bag across the bed. "You're rude, Englishman. Isn't it better to ask who a man is than what? I am that ugly?"

I held my tongue. "Who are you, then?"

"I'm Lallo. Who're you?"

"Vincenzo Nunzio."

"Liar."

"I'm sorry?"

"Don't lie to me. I'll pull off one of your fingers, to teach you a lesson. No dirty fibs for Lallo, right? Right, Englishman?"

"Right," I conceded. "My name is Benjamin Tourier."

He leered toward my face, grinning with a mouthful of stained, blocky teeth. "You've got a good sense of humour. I like that. Okay, now that we're done playing games why don't you introduce yourself like a civilized man?"

"A civilized man?" I echoed. "That's rich, considering the source."

"Eat shit. I don't care. I'll call you Englishman. You're at my mercy: you don't call the shots. I don't need your name."

"What do you need?"

He considered this, rubbing his lantern-like jaw with weather-worn fingers crisscrossed by scars. "I need to get into the house. You're going in there, I know. You're hunting the librarian, to copy him. You do a good job, so I'm coming with you. I need to get into the house, too."

"The house? Do you...do you mean Uncle's house?"

He frowned again, squinting at me. "Hah?"

"The staff call the master of the estate Zio."

Lallo seemed to smile. "You're stupid," he concluded. "There's no uncle. Zio's his name, a short name -- he's Ziusudra from his mother." He scratched his thatch of black hair and sniffed. "Maybe I got the wrong guy with you. I thought you knew all about this place. How're you going to get in the house if you don't even know his name?"

I shrugged, awkwardly since I was tied up. "I was counting on bluffing my way through with sir if the need arose."

"Shit," admitted Lallo. "You're brave, Englishman."

The sun peeked through the glass, a soft-edged amber reveal of my host. Where I had previously taken him to be merely ugly I could now discern that he was, in fact, ravaged. The skin on the back of his neck was twisted with healed burns, and almost every inch of his face was pitted, scratched, nicked or lined. His nose appeared to have been broken many, many times.

"What's happened to you?" I asked.

Lallo shrugged. "Pretty much everything," he said bluntly. "Okay, I'll take care of Mr. Dead Bones here and you sit there like a good boy, okay?"

"I'm a bit put out by that, actually."

"Hah?"

"The fact that you've killed my friend. It's distressing, you understand. You say you want to collaborate, but I'd like to point out that our relationship isn't exactly starting on good footing."

He shrugged again. "If you're not here when I come back, you'll be sorry. Okay, Englishman?"

I said nothing.

He pulled his hood over his head and then groaned as he hauled the heavy duffel bag up over his massive shoulder. In the growing light I could see that his cowl was encrusted with dirt and old food, bits of leaves and a spattering of sticky, congealing blood. "If you got to go," he said, "just go in your pants. I don't care how you smell."

I smirked tightly. "You're going outside like that? You're covered in blood. You'll be arrested."

He waved dismissively. "Nah."

"What will you do if you're questioned?"

"By police guys? No problem -- I kill them."

I grimaced and shook my head. "Christ, man, you can't just go about killing people willy-nilly."

"What -- killing just to kill people, for kicks? No no, I haven't done that for ages. Ah, youth!"

"Good Lord. You're a monster."

He smiled broadly at this. "I pursue a purpose, Englishman. So do you. How clean are your hands?"

I considered this after he had left. I had several hours to consider it. The pool of sunlight pouring in through the window crawled across the carpet, the clean square occluded by warped shadows of the knickknacks on the sill. The day's business began outside -- trucks and cars, shouts and laughter, barking dogs.

By noon I'd managed to rub my wrists raw without loosening my bindings an iota. Also, I was obliged by biological necessity to urinate in place. I sighed.

My captor returned empty-handed. He went to the sink and drank from the faucet like a dog, then dropped himself onto the bed and rubbed his right ankle with his left hand. Beneath the hem of his cowl I noticed for the first time that his right foot was made of wood with a torn rubber sole. "Bloody ankle," he muttered. "I need a new foot."

"You're in fairly rough shape."

"Yeah, I'm an old guy. Shit always happens to me."

I decided to keep him talking, to see what I could see and to ease him. "What is your age?" I asked.

Lallo chewed his lip thoughtfully. "Don't know. I didn't used to count. Not until later."

"Well, you must be at least fifty."

He snorted. "Yeah. At least."

"Do you remember much about your youth? Perhaps we could pinpoint the year."

"Oh, sure. Stuff was different back then. Like, all frozen. You know -- ice everywhere. But after a while things warmed up and then it was all water, water, water. People used to drown a lot, during the cracking times."

I furrowed my brow. "You've lost me. Where exactly did you grow up?"

"Spain," he said carelessly.

I shook my head and tried to find a steadier grip on the conversation. "So what happens now?"

He looked up at me. "Now we make our plan. When're we going to the house? How're you going to get me inside? I hope you've been thinking, Englishman. And I hope you're smarter than you seem."

"You have a most unusual accent. I can't place it. You certainly don't sound Spanish."

"Yeah, I don't care. What about the plan? How do you get in?"

"Me? Well, I'm...a transformer. I will go in disguise."

"You copy people, I know. So who're you going to copy on to me?"

"It's impossible. I could never get you inside."

"No, not impossible. There is no impossible today, or you die. You follow me, Englishman?"

"You're quite a ruthless character."

"I prefer to call it focus. Now, like I said, this isn't a question. It's your orders. You've got no other choices. This is it. You're going inside the house and I'm going with you, so now you've got to figure out a way to do it so I don't get caught."

"I notice you didn't say we."

"Hah?"

"I have to figure out how to avoid getting you caught."

"Right. I'm just being plain with you, Englishman. Once I'm inside the house I don't care about you. You do whatever you want -- run away, die -- whatever."

"Charming."

"Yeah okay, that's enough girly talk. To business, now. We make our plan."

I frowned, clucking my tongue. "Well, if we're going to do this," I conceded slowly, "I'll have to take a look at you. Undress, please."

Without a word he pulled the filthy cowl over his head and dumped it on the floor. The revealed body was squat and muscular, hairy and swarthy, a dense map of faded wounds. His back had been cruelly whipped, perhaps years ago. His torso was crossed by two sweat-stained leather straps that helped to position a right arm that was entirely artificial below the shoulder.

My eyes widened. "May I have a closer look at that arm of yours, Mr. Lallo?"

He shuffled closer, presenting the limb. It was a finely machined piece of modern workmanship, an elaborate but streamlined bundle of kevlar and carbon-fibre housing pockets of gel and gilded by rings of perspiration-tarnished titanium. He rolled the forearm and flexed his black fist.

I whistled. "My word...this is from the Zhang Workshop, isn't it?"

Lallo nodded. "How come you know it, Englishman?"

"I have many friends without limbs," I replied lightly. "It makes one rather a connoisseur of artificiality. I know, for instance, that only the richest and most well-connected can afford this kind of replacement. How did you get it?"

Lallo pressed his mouth together. "That's another story," he grunted.

"It's exquisite," I said, shaking my head. "Is it wired for feeling?"

"Oh yeah. This is the best one I ever had. It's strong and it does what I want. I can pick things up, and I can tell you if they're hot or cold or prickly or smooth."

I licked my lips. "It will be difficult to disguise. An artificial arm is a fairly standout characteristic. Tell me, do they know you at the estate? Does this Ziusudra know you?"

"Well, no and yes. I mean, we know each other, yeah, but he hasn't seen me for maybe like two, three centuries. He doesn't know my arm got wrecked."

"Unless someone told him about it," I added, glossing over the improbable span of time the monster had mentioned. He was ill, clearly -- his grasp on reality likely tenuous.

"Yeah, okay, maybe. So what do we do, Englishman?"

I looked down at my bindings. "I can't examine you like this. We'll need to do some make-up tests, first of all, to see what we can do with that skin of yours. Undo my arms and pass me the small valise on the dresser."

Lallo scratched his head again, squinting. "Don't start talking all French. I'm not so quick as I used to be. Do you mean this bag?"

"No, not that one."

"This?"

"No, no -- the burgundy valise with the silver clasps."

The naked giant frowned and put his hands on his hips. "Okay, where?"

"For Christ's sake, man, just let me fetch it myself."

He nodded and stomped over, then crouched at my feet and expertly undid the knots, freeing my legs and then my wrists. He watched me as I stretched out my limbs, making sour faces at the pain. I glanced up at him with an inquiring look and in response he stepped back to allow me passage to the dresser. He tracked my searching gaze, which is a compulsion most mammals cannot resist.

He who hesitates is lost.

In a single blink I had ripped the cushion from my chair and pressed it against my face as I launched myself at the window. The fabric was shredded by the breaking glass but I was not, and my next concern became landing. My stomach tickled as I achieved a brief moment of freefall, plummeting toward the sidewalk.

"Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ!" I whispered fiercely as I tumbled end over end.

I hit the roof of a taxicab and then rolled onto the hood. The car screeched to a halt which hurled me off of the hood and into a cart of fresh apples, chased by a hail of splintered shards from the window. Apples and glass rained to the pavement. "Mamma mia!" yelled the cartman.

I was dizzy, winded and numb with shock but that didn't stop me from staggering to my feet and bolting across the road, propelled by adrenalin. More cars squealed to a stop but I didn't see them, my vision targeting the opening of an alley ahead. I felt the cool shade as I plunged inside, stumbling against garbage cans and frightening a huddle of small cats or large rats.

I ran for all I was worth. I wanted to put every ounce of distance between myself and Lallo, the murderous creature, before my body gave out. My muscles were already cramping, upset after so many hours tied to a chair. I pelted on through the pain, my breath coming sharp and fast.

Ten minutes later I was inside someone's garden shed, wheezing and wincing as I crouched between a gasoline lawn-mower and a pile of dirty tarpaulins. A ceramic gnome looked down at me placidly from a wooden shelf. "Hallo," I said weakly.

In time my heart slowed. My ribs stopped aching as I drew breath. My punished calves ceased to throb.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. "I'm definitely too old for this."

Thankfully, however, my reflexes were not so decayed as to fail in their life-saving service. Trained by dozens of instances of trauma my instinct of flight was well preserved and still potent -- at least, sufficiently potent to buy me whatever peace I now enjoyed, exhausted and soaked in my own urine, stared down by a gnome.

"Jesus Christ," I said again.

Methodical as I am few are more aware than I that there comes a time for action and, once identified, any refuge in consideration is forsaken. Getting out wasn't just about saving my own life -- though Mick's fate had made sufficiently clear that that was also a pressing issue -- but primarily about mitigating the damage Lallo could and would do to the integrity of Her Majesty's mission. To compromise myself was risk enough, let alone entering upon the critical phase handicapped by one whose loyalties were as easily anarchic as absent.

To abort was the only option. A clearer case I had never seen. And though I felt a fool, I knew the Sovereign would prefer to try again than try and fail. All I could do to avoid hopelessly polluting the waters was to get out while I could, and design a new strategy from a safe vantage.

How to get to a safe vantage remained vexing. I slid open the shed door and peeked outside. A crone was tending her tomatoes. She looked up.

"Good afternoon," I said.

"What are you doing in there? Get out!"

"I'm terribly sorry. I didn't mean to intrude."

"Thief! Rapist! Vandal! I'm calling the police!"

"Yes, um, I'll just be on my way then. Cheerio!"

So I did a little bit more running at that point, hopping fences from garden to garden until I slid into a reedy creek and then splashed my way up to a farmer's field. Amid the fallen stalks of last season's harvest I lay on the ground and watched the clouds crawl by, listening intently.

Despite my many talents the root of any transformer's strength is in the simple disciplines of silence and patience. Now was a time to lie low and nurse whatever reserves I could bring to bear on my plight. I made myself immobile and invisible, a friend to the roots and the soil, my face pressed into the planet's damp skin.

I slept for want of darkness. When I awoke the sky was burnished and fading.

Given the state of my attire the only feasible transformation I could undertake would be to become a vagrant, much as Lallo himself had done, and then hitch as a hobo into Venice. As I walked through bristle-cut, winter browning fields toward the train station I did what I could to rearrange my clothes to look the part as thoroughly as possible. I found an empty wine bottle in a furrow and carried it with me as a prop.

I observed the station platform from the long grass beside the tracks. There were no passengers milling around but a stationman was coordinating the stacking of a half dozen large wooden crates. This was good news: it was easier to stow away on a cargo train than a passenger train.

The stationman checked his watch and then peered up the tracks northward. "See you tomorrow," called one of the workers. The stationman waved indifferently.

In the distance, a horn sounded.

I reached out and touched the rail. It was beginning to quiver. I tucked back into the bushes to wait. In moments the air was thrumming with the train's arrival.

The sun set. The train's headlamp cut the darkness, causing the shadows around me to warp and turn. Pebbles bounced. A rush of air washed over me as the train slowed, brakes squawking, and pulled alongside the platform.

"Hup, hup, hup!" clapped the stationman. Loaders from the train jumped down and began hauling the crates up into a boxcar.

In the meantime I slipped along the opposite side of the train, eyes tracking across each car in search of an opening. I stopped to try a sliding door but found it bolted, then continued scurrying.

I scurried right into the stationman, bouncing off his chest and knocking myself back onto the gravel. He pinned me with his flashlight and snarled, "Get the hell away from my train, scum! Get out of here! No freeloaders! Shoo!"

He nudged me roughly with his boot to bring his point home clearly.

I crawled to my feet and retreated as he continued to call after me. I paused on the far side of the station wall, leaning against it and feeling out the sore spot on my hip where the stationman had kicked me. The train sounded its horn again as the engine throttled up and it pulled away to the south, the sound Dopplering away.

The ensuing silence was deafening. Crickets chirped.

I wondered where I would sleep, and how I would go about making my next attempt. I was also very hungry.

As I wandered I heard what I at first took to be bees, but as I drew nearer I recognized the sound as motorbikes. Against the last light of the purpling sky I saw their silhouettes pop up and drop down, jumping the eroded furrows in a fallow field. The laughter and shouts of youth reached me.

Moving low, I slithered up the face of the next rise and peeked over. Four boys and two girls stood in a loose circle, drinking liquor, watching as two of their friends raced chortling bikes in wide, dirt-spraying circles. "Go, Sal! Go!" cheered one of the girls.

Two more motorbikes stood on their kickstands two furrows over. I started moving toward them, thinking perhaps I wouldn't take the train after all.

The closest bike had a set of keys dangling from the ignition.

"Thank you, Jesus."

When the two racers sped to the far side of the field and the youths turned to track them I chose my moment to slip up onto the bike. I knocked up the kickstand with my heel and then began walking the vehicle as quietly as I could, drawing it backward into the depression where I'd been hiding.

The tank sloshed. I judged that there was enough gasoline to get me to Portogruaro, at least. I thanked Jesus again.

And then, a cry: "Where's your bike, Marco? Holy shit -- where's your bike?"

I twisted the key and hit the starter. The engine coughed pitiably but did not turn over. Sweat broke out across my brow. I tried again, producing a sputter and a grumble. "Oh dear," I whispered, risking a look up.

The four boys on foot were pelting toward me, leaping between the furrows like gazelles. The sight of their apparently weightless shadows made me feel old.

I jammed the starter again and swore. The engine roared to life.

The bike skittered over the dirt in an uncontrolled arc as I fought for balance. Eight hands reached out to grab at me but I was propelled away just in time, cruising down the face of a small rise and then vaulting up the next, catching a bit of air. "Thief!" cried the boys.

The bike hit the ground and I throttled hard, tugged back as I shot over the bumpy ground leaving a spray of flying grass clods. I glanced in the mirror but darkness and vibration conspired to make the image unreadable.

I steered into a furrow and turned the bike to make a straight run for the railway tracks. I pushed the little engine to its limits. The field was a blur.

I decided I was going to make it.

A split second later my ear was able to discern a set of high-pitched buzzing sounds bearing down on me, barely audible over the roar of my own mount. The headlamps on the other two bikes came on, blinding me as they zipped directly across my path.

Bits of dirt rained over me. I swung the bike around to flee.

But they were faster, and more deft. I had not even completed my turn before they were both alongside me and an arm extended to catch me in the throat. For the second time that day, I was airborne.

I rolled into a ditch, coughing. I looked up to face the glare of their lights. The sounds of pressed grass informed me that the others had caught up. "We got him," said one of the boys.

"Nobody touches my bike," growled Marco, silhouetted by headlamps as he sauntered closer.

"I'm sorry," I said, and then Marco kicked me in the ribs.

"It's just some fucking bum," said Sal. "Let's pulp his ass."

"Definitely," agreed Marco.

And then six boys were surrounding me as I fought to cover my face with my hands. They kicked at me from all sides, screaming profanities. Their boots caught me in the back, on the shoulder, on my arms and legs. A rock bounced off the back of my head and I felt blood flow. "Please!" I sputtered, "I'm sorry!"

"Damn right you are," agreed Marco. He grabbed me by the hair and hauled my face into view, then punched me roundly across the jaw. And then again. And then a third time. I saw stars.

A moment's reprieve came. Five of the boys backed away as the fifth approached me with a steel tire-iron. One of the girls grabbed his arm and started to say something but was silenced with a hard look. The boy raised the tire-iron over his head and prepared to bring it down.

It took me on the shoulder, pain splashing through my torso like something spilled. Against my will, I howled. "No, no -- please," I begged desperately.

The boy raised the tool again. The others laughed. I tasted death, and I was afraid.

"Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!"

The air sang as the tire-iron was swung. I flinched in anticipation of the blow.

It did not come.

I was surrounded suddenly by flashing shadows and overlapping grunts and then, finally, a piercing shriek. I rolled over to try to better appreciate the situation but all I saw was Sal propelled bodily through the air, crashing down with a nauseating crack that left him moaning feebly. Someone else gasped and then fell heavily.

The moon slipped out from behind the clouds, opening the field up to a wan, silver light.

It was Lallo. He was unstoppable. I watched him snatch the tire-iron out of Marco's hand and then turn it on the boy with a single, vicious swing. Marco was silenced by a repulsive liquid noise, and then he folded like a ragdoll. One of the girls was screaming and screaming. The other was running away.

Two of the boys had jumped on their mounts. Lallo surged up behind them and actually picked up the closest bike, rider and all, and gave a mighty grunt of exertion as he threw. The first bike hit the second and mowed it down like a bowling ball. Motorcycle parts flew in every direction, slicing the grass.

Sweating and breathing hard, Lallo rushed up to me and held out his artificial hand. "Get up, Englishman!"

I took the hand. He hauled me to my feet and then supported me as we fled, leaving behind a collection of shadows whimpering in the grass. Before even a dozen strides my battered legs failed me and I stumbled. Without breaking pace Lallo leaned down and scooped me up, tossing me over his shoulder like Mick's corpse.

I bounced as he ran.

For some strange reason I felt safe. I was reminded of being carried by my father, ferried to my bedroom half-asleep and careless, incurious and comforted. Even in my dazed state I could appreciate the irony of feeling so while being hefted by a homicidal monster, my kidnapper and saviour.

"How did you find me?" I managed to croak.

"I can track anything," he said.

When he slowed to a shamble I caught the sharp intake of breath every time he put his right foot down. "You're hurt," I whispered hoarsely.

"Nah," he muttered. "Just my ankle. It's broken again. Stupid shocks in the foot are all worn out."

"Can you go on? Put me down. Let me take a look."

"Forget about it. It always breaks. It's no big deal. I'll heal."

I lolled on his shoulder, giddy and disconnected. "Good Lord, man, what are you?"

Lallo snorted. "Don't you know anything, Englishman? I'm one of the long."

"The long?" I echoed.

"Yeah," he nodded wearily. "I go on and on and on."

The air was cold. Thicker clouds swept in and obscured any light. Lallo limped me through alleys and abandoned byways, sniffing the air and looking around constantly like a wolf on the hunt.

I broke out in gooseflesh.

It was not the air that chilled me, however. It was my recollection of something the Sovereign had said back at Windsor Castle, something I now understood differently in light of Lallo's claims. She said, "Mr. Smith, you must believe me when I tell you that not all men die."

And now, perhaps, I believed it.



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