Rough bark against my back, to ground me. The cold, wet fabric of my cloak, soaked in the steady drizzle, against my palms to keep reality at odds with the sunlit scene beyond the last fringe of undergrowth.
Wait for the reset. Watch it once, to get the general outline, and try to strike a balance between avid attention and not-letting-it-get-me.
A running commentary, I have found, helps.
A man and a child are walking down a porch and on through sun-lit grass, the kid is describing something with grand, exited gestures and the man laughs, tousling his child's hair. Then something out of sight attracts his attention and the carefree smile slips away. He sends the kid back into the house and, though puzzled, it obeys without a fuss.
I smile without mirth, such a transparent, desperate ploy, to keep his family out of the coming confrontation, to keep it strictly between himself and the troop of mounted Longcoats ambling into view. So predictable, they always try that, if possible.
It never works.
The man on the ground walks up to meet them and exchanges a few words with the officer in charge, while the rest of the troop files past without apparent interest in the man or his home. He knows the leader of the troop, that much is obvious from the way they interact, and they don't like each other much, but there is no outright hostility until there are as many Longcoats behind the man as before him. Then the officer nods to one of his underlings, who promptly kicks the standing man in the back of the head. He falls to his knees and the mounted men crowd him, heavy trampling hooves pressing in from all sides.
I'm duly impressed when he manages to dive through underneath a horse belly and comes back to his feet, hand whipping to his hip, reaching for a weapon he does not carry at the moment. It's the only unexpected move to come for the rest of the scene – there's nothing new under the suns, while there are Longcoats involved.
He is one and unarmed, they are twelve, armed and mounted. He manages to unseat one of them and almost gets himself a weapon before he is beaten down once more, and this time the Longcoats get a hold on him before he is back on his feet again. The troop dismounts, the leader taking half of his men to search the house, the other half stays outside to beat the man into a bloody pulp. If they find anything beyond the wife and child, it doesn't show. The kid, shocked and bewildered at the sight of its father held up and beaten between two Longcoats, launches a fierce attack at the man about to throw another vicious punch, but it obviously never learned to fear a grown man's strength.
That ought to be a compliment to its father, but I bet the latter curses the fact, right now, seeing how the child receives a quick and painful lesson about the futility of such a deed. Its head snaps back so violently under the hit, that I wonder briefly if the neck might have been broken.
The sight is enough for the beaten man to tear away from his captors for a moment. Or maybe it's the sight of his wife dragged along by the hair by the smirking Longcoat officer. Not that it matters, really. He is brutally subdued almost immediately.
The man is unconscious by the time the iron suit is dragged into view, but the expression on the woman's face, when she sees the thing and realizes its intended occupant, is the sort of sight that follows you to the grave.
Not much to see, after that. Within a minute, everything loops back into itself and the broken body is walking tall again, smiling with unbloodied lips, and tragedy unfolds anew.
Oo oo oo oo oo oO
I watch it again, scanning for details, this time. How old is that porch, ancestral home or something build newly for this family? How old is the child? Boy or girl? Any indications it's not the only one? What names are mentioned? Is there a formal accusation – or an informal one, along the lines of "So-and-so told us where to find his rebel buddies"? Is there any sort of perennial caught in the loop that might give me an indication about how much time has passed, when I get close enough? Everything I know is less likely to blindside me, later on.
I tear myself away at the next reset, I don't have the time to watch all day. I have a raid to prepare.
To rob a queen and sorceress once, takes audacity and luck. To do so repeatedly, takes proper preparation. If the object of the theft is a breathing human being, it just complicates the deed. I found out the hard way, that a few minutes more inside the suits won't make a difference, but the first few minutes outside can be crucial.
Locating the suit without disrupting the projection is iffy, but experience helps and as soon as you have the suit, you can deduce the projector – Longcoats always go for a direct line of sight, even though the hologram would work just as well at right angles. With those two focal points located, it's easy to navigate the shortest way past the projection without disturbing it.
Working my way through tangled undergrowth to the backside of the cabin, I find the familiar – and yet always eerie – transition line between time loop and present, about halfway through the building, and, to my relief, well-weathered but still solid looking walls beyond. The backdoor is still barred, but I have become quite adept at breaking-and-entering.
The insides of the cabin are trashed by the standard Longcoat search pattern, but both stove and sink are too heavy and too solid to smash or topple over. Good. The pump groans, gurgles and spouts a gush of rusty slime, at first, but then it produces clear, clean water. Even better. I gather up the firewood strewn across the floor and get a fire going; then fish the largest kettle I can find from underneath a ruined cupboard, fill it with water and put it on, to heat.
A quick search through the rest of the premises later – ignoring the trample, the shouts and the Longcoats flickering in and out of existence in the front rooms – I'm back in the kitchen with a mostly matching set of clothes, carelessly dropped to the floor of the wardrobe and thereby protected from vermin throughout the intervening time by the spells woven into the wood; a wickedly sharp razor, always a boon when a shave and haircut is most likely overdue, plus some soap stored away in a tin box; and, lucky find, a packet of tea, still sealed, kicked into a corner. I brew a pot of strong, sweet tea, immediately.
Then I step outside, through the front door, careful to put my feet on reality and not projection. The projector continues to work around my disruptive presence, and by walking slowly and staying out of the moving parts of the scene, I keep it running until I reach the device. I switch it off and pocket the thing, then hurry over to the iron suit, now stark and alien in the overgrown grass.
Smash the seals, wrench the thing open and stay out of the way of whatever surges out first. Then step in, in time to catch the occupant when he slumps forward.
"'m go'ng t' kill h'm," he mumbles.
Talking, check. Coherent sentence, check. Sentence makes sense in context, check. Not bad for a first impression. I'm used to work with less.
Physically there is nothing wrong with them that a good wash and a shave and haircut wouldn't cure. Their mental health, however, is an entirely different question. I get raving mad, drooling mad and stares-into-the-middle-distance. Some just need a couple of good nights' sleep in an open space and a few decent meals to become functional again. Others will need looking after for the rest of their lives.
What I got here, might not be conveying a very constructive mood, but then, the only constructively thinking man I found in the suits, so far, has been the one who took to building painstakingly detailed cloud-castles. He hasn't stopped adding rooms yet, in the three annuals since.
Oo oo oo oo oo oO
Practice gets my newest find under shelter before he's soaked enough to start shivering, and once inside, I dose him with a cup of hot tea. After that, I'm delighted to find, he's lucid enough to clean up himself.
I grew out of playing dress-up with my dolls more than a decade ago, and it's not as much fun to do that with grown men as some people imagine it to be. Rag-dolls that outweigh you by half are somewhat awkward to handle.
Afterwards I get another cup of tea into him and he's awake enough to make a grab for my arm when I hand him the third. I manage to bat him away without scalding anyone, but just barely. Damn, the guy is quick.
"Who're you?" Halfway through with the confused state and fully into angry with the world at large. My favourite.
I keep the cup of tea ready, just in case – once or twice I found something truly nasty in the suits, but steaming hot liquid to the face gives almost anyone pause.
"Name's Gae." As if that would convey any useful information. "Some guys with a doubtful sense of humor have dubbed me the 'Tin opener'." That might mean something to him, depending on how long he's been in the suit.
"You did this before." Suspicious, almost an accusation. Obviously he hasn't heard of me, but he can think on his feet and the way he glares me up and down – all 5'4" of me, in heavy boots – shows that he does not find me the most likely candidate for such a task.
I'm not. That's why I'm still alive. Longcoats take one look at me and dismiss me out of hand, too.
So I return his gaze, evenly. "Almost five annuals. Came home from studying in the big city, one day, found that one of my childhood friends had disappeared. No one wanted to tell me what happened, at first, but when I insisted, I found out that Longcoats had come for the family, some time ago. People warned me not to go to their place because it had become haunted, after the deed. Something so terrible had happened there, they said, that the very grounds couldn't forget and so it kept repeating over and over again. Me, being young, stupid and above all educated, I scoffed at the ghost stories and went over, anyway. Found out the stories were true after all, panicked and fell down a slope, right into the middle of the evil spectres, panicked once more and ran smack into a solid piece of iron. Impact left me too stunned to run, for a moment, just long enough to realize that the ghosts had vanished and that there was a face I could barely recognize behind the iron. Mild case, really, boy had been in the suit for barely three cycles, was lucid enough to scream for help once I bumped into it, and there was some extended family left that had the guts to take him in, after they got over the first shock."
I pause, because, as far as I am concerned, things started to get ugly at that point – and glacial eyes immediately narrow at the momentary hesitation. Someone here is working very hard to catch me lying.
I give a little grimace that isn't a smile, and possibly never will be again. "He didn't know my name anymore but called me an angel and other people followed suit."
His eyes narrow further and I put some more teeth into the pseudo-smile.
"After one week I ran, because I couldn't get over the screams, in here," I tap the side of my temple. "Thought I could escape the memory in the big city's bustle, but it's a damn good tracker. Then I overheard someone talking about another 'haunted place' and immediately had two sets of voices screaming in my head. Found that I could drown the imaginary ones by stopping the real ones. Have been hunting down ghost stories ever since."
He's still glaring, trying to sift truth from lies – and who can call it paranoia, once they did come and got you.
"Who told you about… this?" he asks roughly, a vague gesture indicating the entirety of the cabin and its surroundings.
I shrug. "Actually, you I found on accident, skirted some Papay fields, dodged a Longcoat patrol, and walked right into another, just a little late."
"Lucky me," he says, and the twitch on the corners of his mouth is as real a sign of humour as is mine. Still, some of the tension recedes, and I hold out the cup of tea again, before breaking out some bread and cheese I… liberated in the last town.
I may be a thief at the highest stakes imaginable, but a girl still got to eat.
He stares at the meagre food like he's never seen its like before, but when I hand him a slice, he starts chewing ravenously. Halfway through, he stops, though.
"I'm not hungry," he says, sounding desperate.
"Your body isn't used to real food, anymore. It'll pass." I guessed as much from the state of the house, but now I know for certain that he's been in the suit for more than an annual. The body doesn't give up on deeply ingrained urges so easily, craving food desperately for quite some time, even if its immediate necessity for survival has been suspended.
From a purely practical point of view, it's a blessing in disguise, though. Too much food on an unready stomach would just make him sick.
I have grown very practical over the annuals.
Oo oo oo oo oo oO
I break a splinter off a log, touch one end to the flames in the stove until it catches and use the tiny flame to light a lamp. A quick flick of the wrist extinguishes the splinter and I find the man staring mesmerized at the blue smoke trailing from it.
"May your hearth be warm," I start to recite.
"…and your smoke be blue," he finishes, hesitantly.
I nod, encouragingly. "That sign's still good."
I found the log on the floor with the rest of them, it probably lay openly among the firewood next to the stove. Skywood doesn't look any different from normal wood, after all – until you burn it, that is.
The ice is broken, after that. I bring him up to speed on anything he ought to know to survive until he can get his bearings, including the nearest likely locations where he might find other resistance members. They're quite some distance away, obviously, no iron suit stands occupied for long when there's a strong rebel presence in the area – unless there's an even stronger Longcoat presence, too. Sometimes not even then.
I allow myself to state the obvious with that, leading the talk back to the topic of my unlikely occupation – at least, if he has some more questions, now that he's had a little time to think.
"You aren't part of any rebel group, are you?" is a very well-thought-out one.
I shake my head 'No' and he nods and gives me the once-over, again. "Why not?"
He has a good glare, with those glacial eyes of his, most people would probably fold and start confessing under it. I just stare back, eyes just as hard.
"It's not good for me and it's not good for other people if I stay in one place for too long."
Not good enough for him. "Then what about the… the people you find?" He can not yet bring himself to mention the suit and I won't blame him.
"I try to get them to family or friends, or at least the nearest settlement. Then I take back to the road, again."
"What if there's no one around, like here," he demands to know, his whole demeanour tense, coiled like a spring.
I fail to be impressed, letting him reach the obvious conclusions on his own. I don't have the physique to carry a grown man and I don't have a horse, either. In a remote place as this, with Papay hunters the nearest (semi)sentient life-form…
"If you hadn't been fit to walk, or likely to get there in a few days, I would have buried you deep enough to make sure you could rest in peace."
The silence stretches for a moment, then he nods.
"What do you do with the suits, afterwards?" he asks, as an afterthought.
"When there're frequent Longcoat patrols in the area – smash up the insides, then bolt it shut again and set the projector back running. Usually fools them, for a while, at least. In a remote place as this, on the other hand – ditch them into the nearest bog or ravine. Wouldn't want to have any unsuspecting wanderers stumble over the thing. It's not like there's any decent use for the things…"
I trail off, thinking of a boy I met some time ago, dragging the three-hundred-pound monster through the wood with fierce determination. I doubt he was a day over fifteen.
"They put my father into one of those," the kid said, when I tried to make it clear to him that salvaging an empty suit for scrap metal is not a good idea. "He died. And now Mom is dead, too, and I don't know what happened to his body."
And such is the state of the world, that the image of his father had become so thoroughly fused with the iron suit, that, in his desperate bid to allow his parents to rejoin in death, at least, if life was no longer an option, he substituted the empty suit for the missing body.
I helped him drag. The suit is still standing, in silent vigil, next to his mother's grave.
Oo oo oo oo oo oO
There's not much talk, after that. I spent my monthly ration of conversation already, he isn't much of a talker either, and, having met just an hour ago, the one topic we have in common isn't one we want to talk about. I finish with the rest of the good advice, while the man reacquaints himself with his surroundings.
"Try to keep to open spaces, for a while, it helps. Especially, with sleeping. Oh, and remember that you're now an expert in sleeping on your feet," I say, watching him pack, "don't let it sneak up on you while you're standing watch, or something. And, if you can manage it, get your man within the next few weeks, while the curse still clings to you."
He goes very, very still. "What curse?"
Why is it, that everyone assumes either a completely supernatural explanation or an entirely mundane one?
"The curse set into the suit, the one that says you must not die, of all the things that ought to kill a man if you put him into a sealed iron coffin exposed to the elements." The mechanics of the suit help, but they could never keep people alive for annuals on their own.
"Nothing but old age can kill you inside the suits," though, from what I have seen so far, aging is slowed to half the normal rate, at the outmost, "and seeing how long you were stuck in there, the effect will linger for some time. You'll be pretty hard to kill until it wears of."
"Some curse," he says, but he doesn't question my choice of words. Not being able to die is not a blessing.
Oo oo oo oo oo oO
The bounty of personal items he chooses to take with him after going through the remaining contents of the cabin neatly fits into a pocket. Everything else is useful – and fits into a smallish pack. Good.
"Not your first man-hunt, huh?" I ask.
He shakes his head 'No' and I don't question him further. He might have been a Longcoat that switched sides – most of them were just soldiers when the Sorceress took over, and the suit is a favourite punishment for those she feels personally betrayed by – and I bet he wouldn't want to talk about that.
When he's all set to go, I give him a critical once-over. He looks meaner and tougher than the image I saw fighting less than two hours ago, and I remember being impressed by that. On impulse, I throw him a very weighted question.
"If you survive your quarry, will you do something for me?"
He looks back in surprise, but accepts both the indictment of being on a near-suicidal quest and the request. 'I owe you' isn't voiced aloud, but he's the sort of man that takes his obligations very serious. "Sure, what do you need?"
Now, that is the tricky part. "I have been breaking curse seals for almost five annuals, now." Every single one of them would have been harmless, but the cumulative effect is… not good.
"There might be accidentally beneficial side effects, but the intention behind the power infused into the suits is malicious. And when it comes to magic, intention counts for a lot." I shrug. "I don't have any talent myself, and when I spoke to someone who knows about these things, I didn't understand half of what he said, but apparently working with dark curses is like working with pitch, some of it sticks."
Worse, it seeps.
I'm harder to kill than a cat, these days, without having spent a single second inside a suit, but that's not what I'm talking about.
At first, I put it down to the human mind's ability to get used to anything, when the sights projected in front of the suits stopped to bother me. When I started to look forward to see the next one, I grew worried. When a feral viewer ran away howlingly after getting within three steps of me, I knew I had a problem.
"It's only a matter of time before I'm pulled over the edge and start making scenes of nightmare for my own amusement. I hope, I'll still be rational enough by that point, to aim myself at the largest concentration of Longcoats I can find. I might not. Or there might not be one, large enough to stop me, on hand. In either case, I'll start… leaving a trail. Will you come for me, then, put me down for good?"
He is giving me that hard going-through-your-brain-and-sifting-out-the-truth stare again. I stare right back. He is the third person, in total, I have told. The third I have asked to hunt down a monster wearing my face.
Unlike the others, he does not ask, why don't you stop, then? It's too late for that, it might buy me time but won't change the final outcome, and I'd rather end a few nightmares in the time I've left than twiddle my thumbs while I wait to become one. And who knows, I might run into a Longcoat on his lucky day and get shot, tomorrow.
I shake myself out of that happy thought in time to hear him say, simply, "You have my word on it." Then something occurs to him and he scowls. "You said the curse was sticking to me, too."
"It won't affect you that way," I'm quick to reassure him, "there's a difference between the target of a curse and the one to manipulate it. You got the intended effect, I get… the backwash, so to speak." Not a very good comparison, but the best I have.
"That guy, I spoke to, likened it to fireworks. You get the sparkly lights; the one to set it up originally, fired the rocket – while holding it in his hand, no less. It's doable, if you know exactly what you are doing and take the proper precautions and it doesn't decide to blow up in your face. I just make a grab for the fizzling thing. Gets you burned."
Me, I'm charcoal pretty much down to the bone, these days. Close to the point where the next touch of the fiery tail might spontaneously ignite me.
The scowl is still there, but he seems satisfied with the explanation.
"You have my word," he repeats, and a few minutes later we part in the drizzling rain.
First thing I ever wrote for the Tin Man 'verse, call it a little warm-up exercise, caulking some of the plot holes surrounding the iron suits and their occupants. Therefore any similarity to scenes you recognize is quite intentional. Left to sit unpolished for a while, but these days it ties in with Chapter Six of Lesser Evil. Same universe as LE (or Most loyal friend), different point-of-view.