“This is shaping up to be a bad day,” thought Lillian Morgan as she coughed up her third small, green, pulpy mass and spat it into the bedside bucket. As she took a silk handkerchief from her housemaid and wiped her lips, she quietly cursed this horrible town and all its troubles. “Rich people aren’t supposed to have days like this.”
She folded the handkerchief and wiped a thin layer of cold sweat from her brow. She reflected back on the first time she’d laid eyes on Nathaniel Morgan. Lillian wondered what she would tell that girl about her future.
“Coffee, chicken soup, bread. Now.” Lillian didn’t even look at the housemaid standing nearby, but dismissed her with a wave. “And send Ashbel up.”
Two minutes later, Doctor Emanuel Ashbel timidly opened the door to her bedroom. Lillian was mildly irritated at being scrutinized like a sick heifer, but she kept her tongue still for the moment. He was, after all, the doctor. He reached out to touch her arm, but she glared at the outstretched hand until it retreated. After he studied her a little more from a respectful distance, he offered his evaluation.
“Your skin is still clammy, you’re sweating more than you should, and the boils are still developing. Your eyes are slightly dilated and almost rheumy. I see you’re not using the bucket as much today as yesterday, and that’s better.” Lillian felt a little bile rise in her throat. The sight of that bucket was the most revolting thing she had to put up with day after day this week. But after a cooling breath, the sensation passed. Ashbel was still going on and on, in his helpfully unhelpful way.
“Miss Morgan, I know you have trouble holding down solid food. But you’ve got to try. Your system needs all the fuel it can get to fight this thing.”
Lillian sighed. “Not yet, Doctor. Until my stomach settles a little, I’ll stick to Mama’s prescription.” She waved forward the housemaid, who arrived early with today’s meal. She took the bread and soup first, pointing to the coffee and the side table. The maid gingerly put down the mug and waited for Doctor Ashbel to speak. She’d learned it was easier to flee if someone else was talking. With the first word out of his mouth, she quietly moved out of the room.
“The bread at least is a good idea. How can I help?”
Lillian felt a spark of ire at the chiding approval, but decided not to speak until she’d had her first sip of coffee. It didn’t penetrate the blurring malaise inside her head, but it loosened some of the mucus and made breathing less troublesome. “If I’m not going to die today, I need to start fighting back against that venomous wench of a step-daughter. She’s finally left me alone now that she’s gotten what she wants, so I can start getting it back.” She took another sip and snorted to avoid a cough. “I need you to get Pasteur up here. Then, find Jon Longstride.” She reached to the nightstand and picked up two envelopes she’d prepared the night before. “This is histo-do list. Then bring Shane and Graves both up here.” She flipped the pair of envelopes so the other one was on top. “This envelope, give to Luke. He’s small and won’t attract attention, which is important given where he needs to go.”
“Very well,” Ashbel said. “But not before I see you eat that bread. I’m willing to help, but first show your commitment to recovery.” He looked down at Lillian, and she felt a little irritated that he, a paid employee, wasn’t more mindful of the orders she gave. But it wasn’t worth the effort of getting up and slapping him, so she continued to stare back up at him. Arguing with him would just take more time, and her fortune was eroding with each second that brat stole more resources and people from her.
Lillian ate, slowly and gingerly. It took her nearly half an hour to finish even that small a meal, and she felt exhausted with the effort of it. After the meal, she rested up against the headboard and half-closed her eyes. Ashbel leaned in to scrutinize again, and his clinical appraisal would have unnerved her if his sheer failure to get things moving wasn’t irritating her so much. “I’m saving my strength for the meeting you are supposed to be organizing. Get going.”
Ashbel quickly left, riding out to the Research Institute to collect Doctor Pasteur.
* * *
Lillian nodded to Warren Graves, who was the last to arrive. Once he sat down on the right, she turned to the leftmost person, Dr. Sky Borne.
“Doctor Borne, report on the herds. How is our product doing?”
The biologist sighed deeply. “The losses continue. We’ve isolated the healthy populations, only to have the sickness appear as if from nowhere.” Dr. Borne pointed to Ashbel and Pasteur. “Even with the assistance of these esteemed colleagues, we’re barely getting product to market. The local buyers all know about the disease, so nobody will buy cut meat any more. They need to see live cattle to know they’re buying healthy. Our breed seems to be immune, but they are languishing with the diminishing of the other herds. We’ve been using some of the more sickened cows as food sources.” Sky’s delicate expression seemed to say the word ‘cannibalism,’ even though her lips refused to do so. “The rate of infection has slowed, however. Whether that’s because of effective treatment or the simplicity that the remaining cows are naturally more resistant – that is unclear. But with the sheer magnitude of the infection, I cannot guarantee we will be a viable business next year.”
Lillian then turned to the next man over, Jon Longstride. “Jon, first go over the numbers for Morgan Cattle operations. How badly is the money bleeding?”
The normally amiable Longstride shook his head. “I’m not Max. From what I understand about the numbers, they’re awful. We’ve managed to reduce the rate of loss, but I’m not sure I see profit any time soon.”
She then turned to the next person over. Louis Pasteur studied her intently as she spoke to him. “Doctors … have you made any progress? Will there be any cowboys left to tend my herds?”
The doctors exchanged glances, and Ashbel spoke. “We cannot say. The pathogen is tenacious, and still defies attempts to even categorize it, let alone fight it. We are confident, however, in the future stability of the animals, but we are not listened to by those who are in a position to buy. As to the workers, their fate is tied to all of us. If we cannot stem the tide among human victims … God help us all.” The room grew silent as everyone looked uneasily at Lillian’s thin and drawn frame.
Pasteur finally spoke up. “We anticipate breakthroughs on many fronts. We will win the war against this sickness. But at what moment, we cannot say.”
Lillian winced a little, coughed a little, then she turned back to Jon. “Now the second set of numbers, Jon. How is Morgan Mining doing?”
Jon sighed. “Laughing all the way to the Bank of California, really. Again, I’m not the right pair of eyes for this, but I can see she’s gone from hiring miners to building experimental drills. The expense of protecting the ore from the mines to the railroad is high. But the bandits are starting to shiver every time they hear Healey’s horse.” Lillian swore under her breath at the name. “In short, Morgan Mining is booming for now. But like Emanuel said … their workforce is languishing as well.”
Lillian nodded, then turned to face Nathan Shane, seated between Ashbel and Graves. “Okay, now you two. Who have we lost to that viper’s meddling?”
Nathan Shane twirled a strand of straw in his fingers as he looked around the room. “I’m reasonably confident that everyone in this room still has your interests at heart. But after that, it gets sketchy. For absolutely sure, she got her fangs into Lane, and got Remy to boot as her personal bandit hit squad. For the science contingent, that jobhopper Eustace True, the unsurprisingly disloyal James Ghetty, and Harold Aimslee. Oh, and Howard Aswell.”
Lillian seemed to be checking boxes on a list, and it was a list nobody wanted to be on. Finally, she turned to the young boy standing next to her nightstand. “You brought me something, yes?”
The lad swung a dusty tan satchel from his back. He reached his hand inside, and gingerly took out a parchment roll. “Mister Baird secured the original for you from the Registrar, ma’am. He wishes you health and long life.”
Lillian rolled her eyes and spoke to her team. “Nathaniel used to say, ‘Stocks may rise and fall. People are no darned good. But they’ll always need land. Keep an eye on who’s buying and selling it, and you’ll know who’s winning and losing.’ ” She took the paper and unrolled it, glaring at each word with indignant offense. She waved Luke away, and he obediently retreated.
For a full two minutes, nobody spoke. Everyone in the room either supported Lillian enough to give her the time to read the text, or knew it was a bad idea to interrupt her. Shane and Graves chewed the ragged ends of their straws, Jon wiped his brow, Dr. Borne kept her impatience to only a furrowed brow, and Pasteur and Ashbel monitored Lillian’s face for signs of faintness or the need for her bucket. But Lillian spoke four words that woke them all.
“Everyone but Pasteur, leave.”
Nobody ran, and nobody jostled. Nathan Shane spat into a spittoon near the door, which broke the soft flutter of hard leather soles on hardwood floor. Soon, the French biologist and the cattle baroness were alone in the room.
“The deed is simple enough. Lula sold a property to that ringmaster, Ivor. It’s fairly worthless property, and he overpaid for it. I don’t have time for Nathan and Warren to glean their aims, and somehow, I have a feeling they would come up empty. I need answers now, and of the people who could help me, you’ve got the best hands and you’re the most willing to assist with something you don’t fully understand.”
Louis raised an eyebrow, but still nodded. “If I can assist, I will. For the good of all the living.”
Lillian pointed to the liquor cabinet against the wall. “Open it. Grab the bottle of Night Train Reserve and pull.”
Pasteur moved to open the cabinet and saw the bottle near the front on the top shelf. He pulled, and with a soft clack, the entire inside of the cabinet moved forward. The bottles were all placed in slight recesses, so they didn’t spill. As he continued, the back panel of the cabinet passed the doors, and from beyond it a three-shelf rack of bottles, jars, and pots of various sizes emerged. Three shelves lined the other side as well. A wheel dropped down to support the revealed pharmacy. There was no dust to be seen, and Pasteur recognized this meant the supplies were used recently, and likely frequently.
Lillian pointed with one hand as the other tried to suppress a cough. “Dog’s eyes … komodo scales … owl liver extract … elderberries … black clover … nitric acid … and of course, witch hazel. Bring each bottle separately.” She took the thick clay crock that had been filled with soup earlier. “I’d normally use a brew for this, but I’m not up to leaving the room right now. So we’ll make an incense of it.”
After Pasteur brought the first bottle, she pointed to a pestle inside the ‘normal’ cabinet. Pasteur scooped it up and brought it with the second bottle. Lillian had already extracted the sticky contents into the crock. Pasteur looked at the shriveled and bruised orbs with scientific detachment.
He spoke thoughtfully as he watched her work. “A sympathetic connection …”
Lillian silenced him with a snap of her fingers. “It’s hard enough without someone else’s words around. I know this is fascinating to you, but keep those thoughts inside your head.” Lillian spoke a word she rarely offered with earnestness to anyone, but Louis Pasteur was a man of great reputation and skill. “Please.”
Pasteur nodded and continued ferrying bottles to and from the cabinet. Lillian took each, added its contribution, and mashed the crock’s contents with the pestle. Pasteur returned the last bottle and looked back to Lillian. She pointed to the bottom shelf.
“Infused ghost rock dust … gently.”
He reached precisely, taking the jar and moving it with smooth dexterity from the shelf to Lillian. Lillian tried to reach into the jar with her soup spoon, but Pasteur gently took hold of her shivering hand. “How much, Madame?”
Lillian released the spoon with a sigh of relief. “One ounce.”
Pasteur measured out the powder deliberately, then closed and returned the jar. Lillian took a match from the side table.
“Have a seat, doctor. You can watch from the outside, but the show is just for me.”
He nodded and took Warren’s seat. Lillian touched the match to the powder, then picked up the deed.
“Hound’s eye … cry of night … bitter lye … bring me sight!” At the last word, the powder ignited.
From Louis Pasteur’s vantage, a cloud of dark vapor surrounded Lillian. It suffused the air with a noxious, acrid smell.
From Lillian’s vantage, the world vanished as her mind soared into the void beyond.
* * *
A dusky prairie was revealed, and on it stood a wreck of a human. Blood oozed from pores, pus dripped from every orifice, and skin hung loosely on bone. The skin was a mottled purple, the hair was stringy and grey, and the bones sharp and twisted. But it seemed to stand with pride, and it snarled at the sky.
“I consume thee!”
The skin bolted and jerked as muscles boiled out from within. Bodily fluids spattered the grass, and the human grew taller. Clothes materialized out from nowhere – the garb of a circus ringmaster. Ivor Hawley stood proudly, and his body seemed to grow larger every second as it fed on the energy of the diseased blood and mucus.
“I consume thee!”
At the edge of the prairie stood herds of cattle, birds and horses. Black lines, cables of thickened blood and ichor, shot from Hawley’s skin and speared the cattle, the birds, and the horses. They writhed, withered, and died. Hawley grew stronger, larger, and more terrible. He was now taller than any tree on Earth, and his eyes were on a set of structures at the edge of the prairie.
Gomorra, standing defiant yet ignorant of the giant lumbering toward it. At the close end stood the property Ivor had purchased. It resembled a large pustule, shivering with anticipation.
“I will consume thee!”
Ivor’s eyes were drawn to Lillian’s, even with the vaporous nature of the vision. But his eyes gleamed with thick silvery cataracts, and he pointed to Lillian’s lungs and the foul congestion within.
“I AM CONSUMING THEE!”
Instinctively, she turned to run and saw flames coming toward the prairie from the other direction. Off in the distance, the clang of hot iron rang through the air, a sulfurous fume stung her nose and eyes, and off towards the mountains at the far range of vision …
She blinked amidst the smoke and flame. It wasn’t a mountain she saw off in the distance. It was a massive hoof … a cloven hoof, black as coal, standing at the edge of vision. Lillian’s eyes tracked upwards to the leg, but her vision spiraled into blackness as the flames speared into her limbs.
* * *
Lillian’s vision returned to the real world, where Louis Pasteur had launched from his chair to catch her as she had twisted and leapt from the bed. She was leaning heavily against his shoulder, her arm over his head, and her throat was raw and aching. She looked down to her legs, where she had felt the illusion of heat lancing through sinew and bone, and her eyes widened as she saw thin wisps of steam rise off her sweaty skin. Her body collapsed on top of the esteemed physician, but he took gentle hold and softly swung her back into bed. Her head landed square on the pillow, and she breathed slowly and deliberately for a minute, letting the world slowly grow back into focus.
Lillian saw Dr. Pasteur briefly leave, and he returned with a bucket of cool water and a cloth. He held it out to Lillian and she took it eagerly and started rubbing her aching calves and forearms with it. She spoke softly.
“Doctor Pasteur, I need you to arrange for a meeting. Actually,” and she paused a moment to spit something obnoxious into the bucket, “I need you to carry a message for me instead. I can’t handle more visitors right now, and this can’t wait.”
The doctor seemed occupied with a smell he couldn’t quite place, but he nodded. “Certainly. On whom should I call?”
Lillian sighed, then winced as the sigh caught in her throat. After yet another coughing fit, she steadied herself. “The same person mama always said to talk to when the devil came knocking at your door.” Pasteur studied her face closely, to confirm between them that Lillian wasn’t raving, then nodded resolutely. Lillian was surely afraid, but the fear was not the ranting of a lunatic. It was the cry of warning in the night, as dark beasts slouched roughly towards the innocent.
Lillian took one more steady breath, and looked at the remains of the soup crock. The shards had been thrown off the bed, and now lay in a sprawl on the floor. Blackened and charred remains of what had been the wellspring of health.
“Go get a priest.”