Tuesday 19 March 2024

The Two Dead Men

A short story by

Garry Kilworth

‘There are several stories about encounters with the two dead men, but this one involved a friend of mine, so I can repeat the tale with at least some sort of veracity. One thing is certain, if you do happen to see a pair of hunched figures in a lonely place arguing hotly, especially at night, do not stop. They will be nebulous forms at first, perhaps sitting on tree stumps on the edge of a woodland or standing on a peat hag deep in a moor, somewhere you should not be when the darkness is like thick black dust, the clouds are obscuring the moon and there is a vague smell of iniquity rising like brume from the ground. 

If you are foolish enough to go closer you will see that one of them has a cleft skull, the murky-yellow brains visible in the narrow crack: the other a sideways tilt to the head caused by a neck that has been snapped by the hangman’s noose. A cursing and swearing comes out of their mouths in a harsh stream of vindictive accusations. They are each blaming the other for their circumstances. There is ferocity in their voices, but any threats are empty, since as I have said, they are already dead men. They are but two sacks of bones and rotting flesh. Still they insist, as they will until time comes to an end, that they are each to be pitied for their dreadful state and that the other is responsible.

My friend, I will withhold his name for the moment, was crossing what is termed as a blanket bog in the Knockmealdown Mountains between County Waterford and County Tipperary. He was alone. The moon, such as it was that night, was swimming between dark clouds like a fish between clumps of reeds. He was not lost, but he was taking a dangerous path over unfamiliar ground. There was a light in the far distance, a window cut in the shape of a cross, which was an illuminated wayfarer’s guide. So long as he kept this beacon in line with his trek, he would eventually arrive at the hamlet of Kilcraggy. 

There was a heavy mist hanging low over the bog and he needed to tread carefully to avoid any pools of deep sludge where a man might drown in the sucking mud with none to hear his cries. He had just pulled his coat close around him for the night’s atmosphere was damp and miasmic, when he heard two men arguing hotly with one another. It would have been wise to have circumnavigated the area, and he would have done, except that he heard the names ‘Euripides’ and ‘Aristophanes’ in amongst the curses that were growled and spat into the darkness. That someone should be out in the middle of a bog quarrelling about two ancient Greek playwrights naturally intrigued my friend and he foolishly but determinedly kept to the path he was on. Shortly after, he was to curse the fact that he was a scholar first and a wise man second.

As he approached the combatants a cold mountain stream trickled down the hollow of his spine. He saw that one of them had a skull cleft so deeply there was a channel running through his head. The other man looked unharmed at first sight, but then my friend noticed that the fellow’s head was at an odd angle and it flopped back and forth when the argument became heated.

‘Yes,’ snarled Cleft Skull, ‘they put the plays of each on weighing scales and Euripides works were the heavier. Therefore, his were, in a literary sense, the deeper and more serious of the works.’

‘Ha,’ retorted his opponent. ‘The only reason Euripides’ plays tipped the balance was because he’d soaked them in water before the weighing. He cheated. Aristophanes on the other hand . . .’ Broken Neck came to a halt there and stared through the mist at my friend, who was now quaking with fear. 

Being Irish my friend knew he had come upon a scene that was to be dreaded. Here were the two dead men that he had heard about. Neither of the pair had any chance of leaving the earth for some ethereal place. They were both doomed to spend eternity in each other’s company, quarrelling about a multitude of subjects to save what shreds of sanity remained between them. 

Cleft Skull now also turned, to see what was so interesting on this dank moorland where he found himself still battling with the man who had murdered him and had rightly been hung for his terrible crime.

My friend might have taken to his heels and run away, but he was in a quagmire, which stuck to and sucked at his boots. He believed he would not have made five paces in such a panic before he fell flat on his face. The situation was desperate and in the back of his mind he realised the only way he was going to get away alive was to talk his way out of it. He made a supreme effort to get his faculties in order and to calm his racing heart. Any sign of weakness or fear about him and the dead men would be on him tearing his limbs and head off, searching for the prize they believed they needed to escape from purgatory. There was no logic to their thinking. A live man stood before them, probably an honest, God-fearing man. He had what they wanted.

‘Well now,’ said my friend, stepping forward, smiling, his hands open in greeting, ‘what would you two gentlemen be doing, quarrelling over Greek literature on a foul night like this? Euripides and Aristophanes? Why, you haven’t even considered Aeschylus or Sophocles yet! Now, Aristophanes, wasn’t he just a comic? The Frogs and all that? How could you call a play with a title like that, serious? And Euripides. Didn’t Dionysus call him merely clever, while saying that Aeschylus was to be admired for his wisdom. But I don’t want to interfere or upset either of you two gentlemen, so I’ll just be on my way to that church in the distance. You see the fiery cross? That’s where my feet are taking me, so I’ll bid you good night and be on my way.’

Cleft Skull said, ‘He wants us to look at the wayfarers’ cross, which he knows will blind us for a while and send us to our knees in prayer.’

‘Yes indeed,’ replied Broken Neck, ‘he believes us to be fools.’

They stared at him through pitted eyes, sneers on their faces.

‘How could I think two learned gentlemen like yourselves to be fools? Why, to be sure I believe you must be rival professors of Ancient Greek history, or perhaps your area of expertise is literature, about which you seem remarkably informed . . .’

‘Shut it,’ snapped Broken Neck. ‘You know who we are.’

‘There was a professor in the wrong place just one week gone,’ said Cleft Skull. ‘He passed on his learning to us. We sucked the knowledge out of his brains.’

‘Shared it, fifty-fifty,’ added his murderer. ‘We share everything.’

My friend did not falter with his bonhomie. This was a life-or-death situation and he could not afford show weakness.

‘Ha! Ha! That’s wonderful indeed. It probably took the old fellah half a lifetime to gain that learning and you swallowed it down in a few minutes. Sin iontach.

Broken Neck started forward. ‘What’s that? If it’s a prayer, you are a dead man, like us.’

‘No, no – it just means “that’s wonderful”. Erse, you know.’

‘What kind of language is that, eh?’ snapped Cleft Skull.

‘Well, you are in Ireland, so I thought you’d understand. So, you’re tourists? There are better places to be than in an Irish bog, sirs. You’d be better down in County Cork’s Kilworth Hills, or up at Antrim’s Giant’s Causeway. Those are prime tourist spots. Would you like me to lead you out this quagmire and on the road to more pleasant surroundings? Lough Neagh or the Shannon estuary? Galway Bay? There’s a beautiful piece of Ireland for you.’

The ugly pair ignored this speech entirely.

Broken Neck said, ‘If there’s so much as a hint of “Our Father” comes out of that mouth you are dead man.’

‘Oh, I’m not one for praying, sir. I don’t believe in all that stuff. A pack of old fairy tales, if you ask me. Life after death? I think not.’

‘You’re quite right,’ came back Cleft Skull, ‘what there is – and we are proof of that – is death after death.’ Now he raised his voice. ‘I am here because of him. He struck me with an axe . . .’

‘For betraying me! And I hung for it.’

They started shouting above the wind.

‘Your fault, you bag of festering bones!’

‘Your fault, you rotten sack of shit!’

There was snarling and spitting, shrieking and squealing, hands flailing, eyes rolling as the two dead men faced each other and bellowed curses and threats, each accusing the other of being responsible for their terrible fate.

My friend crept away, into the darkness, his eyes fixed on the wayfarers’ cross, hoping against hope that he would not be missed for a good while. It was forlorn. The two dead men ceased their argument immediately and came after him. One of them took him by the lapels of his coat. The other by the elbows. One in front the other behind him. The stink of their rotting flesh made him gag and he cried out into the night in terror as they shook him back and forth until his teeth chattered. 

This only encouraged his two assailants. 

Cleft Skull pointed over his shoulder in the direction of the distant cross. ‘You’ll never get there,’ he croaked into my friend’s face. ‘Not with your soul inside you. We are going to wrench it out of you, one way or another.’

‘Wait. I told you. I’m atheist. I don’t believe in all that claptrap about eternal life. I have no soul. You’d be looking for what isn’t there.’

‘I say we kill him and pull him apart. Then, if there’s nothing there, what have we lost? Not a thing,’ growled Broken Neck. ‘I’m told the soul is buried in a man’s heart. Let’s tear it out of his chest and then share it between us.’

My friend gathered all his reserves of moral strength.

‘Even if there was something in here. A spirit perhaps, the essence of my being, my psyche? It can’t be shared. It’s not a loaf a bread. It’s invisible and indivisible. You’d have to agree who should have it – or fight over it until one of you is nothing more than scattered limbs and bones on the marish.’

They ceased pulling him about and considered his words, then Broken Neck said, ‘You see what he’s trying to do? Set us against each other while he makes his escape. He’s expecting us to knock each other to bits while off he goes, tripping across the bog to the holy cross and safety. Well it won’t work, will it? We won’t fall for such a deceit. As soon as we turn our violence on each other, we’re finished. You agree?’

‘I do. I do.’ replied Cleft Skull. ‘This is a clever fish we’ve caught here, tonight and I’m going to gut him like a mackerel. Now, let’s crack his rib bones and rip out his heart. Later we can argue who gets to keep the prize.’

‘Wait,’ cried my friend, ‘I thought when I heard you arguing about Greek playwrights that you were intelligent men. I see how wrong I was. You think a man’s soul is lodged in his heart? How wrong can you be? You need an empty space for a thing like a soul. There’s nothing but valves, veins and arteries in a person’s heart. The rest is blood. You’ll find nothing but flaps and tubes and blood in there, I can assure you.’

Broken Neck stared at him with sockets where the putrid eyeballs were squirming with threadlike worms.

‘The lungs!’ he said.

My friend shook his head. ‘Full of alveoli sacs.’

Cleft Skull cried, ‘The stomach then. That’s where it is. Let’s tear open his belly and wrench out his stomach . . .’

‘If you do that,’ laughed my friend, albeit a little hysterically, ‘you’ll kill me. I will be dead. And of course, once I’m dying, the soul will fly from my body and join the angels in heaven. It’ll be gone in a flash. The angels will have it and you will not. You’ll be thwarted in your plan to escape one another.’

‘Maybe we’ll be quicker than you think?’ said Broken Neck. ‘See how swiftly we moved when you tried to get away?’

‘Even so, even if there’s something there, it’ll be a stolen soul. You’re hoping, one of you, to use it as a passport to the land of glory. It’ll not get you past the gate, my friends. There is One up there who’s omniscient. You can’t disguise the fact that one of you is a murderer and the other a traitor. I myself am an apostate. My soul, if it exists, is useless to you . . .’

‘I’ve had enough,’ snarled Cleft Skull, ‘hold him down.’

Broken Neck took my friend by the shoulders and forced him down onto the dank peat. With his left hand Cleft Skull grabbed my friend’s jaws and squeezed them hard until they opened wide. The dead man then plunged his right fist into the terrified traveller’s mouth and reached down into his throat, twisting and turning the foul appendage. The bony arm naturally followed, using its decayed flesh as a lubricant, down, down, deep down. There the skeletal hand scrabbled around like a large crab seeking food. Eventually it appeared to grip something which it then wrenched out of my friend’s body. Cleft Skull took it aside to study it in the moonlight. 

Broken Neck immediately released his prisoner and hurried to his murderer’s side, asking to be shown the prize. There they began whispering in vicious, threatening voices, making demands. Each saying he deserved the prize, each querulous, carping, testing with the other. They were like two children fighting over a toy, their voices alternately whining and savage.

My friend managed to get to his feet and he staggered away, weaving through the peat hags, desperate to get to the lighted cross.’

I ordered another whiskey from the bar and then turned and shook my head. ‘That’s an incredible story,’ I said to the stranger who had just engaged me in conversation. ‘I’m not saying I don’t believe you, mind. I’m just saying it’s a little hard to swallow. I’m familiar with the myth, or if you prefer the legend, of the two dead men - and I’ve met one or two others – my grandfather for one – who claim to have seen them. Though I don’t know a soul – forgive the use of the word – who’s actually spoken with them. And your friend, how is he now? Has it turned him mad, this terrible encounter?’

‘Well,’ the stranger said, ‘he’s mad enough to wonder what it was that lay in the mouldy hands of those two foul beasts. He’s wondering whether there was, well something in the nature of an essence of himself in their grasp. What do you think, sir? Do you believe in the idea of a soul?’

‘I’m not what you call a deeply religious man,’ I told him, ‘but I have a belief that something more than carnal flesh and bone exists, either in a man, woman or in the world at large.’

His eyes were wet with misery. His voice full of anguish.

‘What was it they held in their hands? My friend must know. It’s driving him mad.’

‘Who can say,’ I replied, ‘but what drives a human being? What drives life, if not some invisible but powerful force? A life-force that produces hope, even when hope is an imposter. There must be something that brings a person climbing to his or her feet, to carry on when all is lost. It happens many times over. You only have to look at the stars in the night sky, the vast sweep of oceans and landscapes, the innocence in a baby’s eyes, to know there is something more than the science of biology is at work in the universe. Of the existence of an omnipotent creator, I am dubious, but of that indefinable force in the human spirit, I am sure. Call it a soul if you like.’

His brow was creased with stress and concern, when he said, ‘I just worry for my friend, for the fact that those devils might have stolen something that was irreplaceably precious. Something that made him who and what he is.’

The stranger stood up, looking to leave me to my own company.

 ‘You never told me your friend’s name,’ I reminded him.

He walked away saying. ‘No, I don’t believe I did.’




Thursday 8 February 2024



(Hg, Atomic # 80)

The Cyborg

I knew there was something out there, because I heard the crack of twigs breaking underfoot. It could have been a bear of course, or a moose: some large animal of some kind. In fact the birds were taking little notice. There were some Lincoln’s sparrows lining a branch which would have flown away if a man was out there. So I took my old Steinschiesser rifle, opened the door to the cabin and stood there, staring out into the unravelling dawn.
‘Lay down, girl,’ I said to my collie, ‘Stay, stay.’
Frankie did as she was told. She remained just inside the cabin doorway, looking out towards the distant peaks with those large liquid brown eyes, alert but not showing any anxiety. There was no sound from her either, which made me even more puzzled about the identification of my visitor. If it was a man, bear or wolf out there, Frankie would have smelled it and would be growling low and steadily. Maybe, I thought, it was just a moose or a caribou, something fairly harmless?
I am not a happy killer of beasts. I feel the animals are just as entitled as I am to share what’s left of the outdoors. However, I didn’t want to get injured out of stupidity either. I let out a loud, ‘HEY!’ to scare away any timid creature and hoped that if it was a belligerent grizzly then it too might decide not to come any nearer. The sound of the twigs breaking stopped for a few seconds and then continued as if the walker had decided it was not in any danger.
The shape of a man then emerged from the line of pines. It was a fine morning, around 15 Celsius, and the sun was directly behind the person walking, or rather stumping, towards me. He was big, well-built by his stature, and came at a slow but determined pace.
‘That’s far enough,’ I called, raising the rifle level with the ground, but not right up to my shoulder. ‘What the hell do you want? This is private land.’
It wasn’t that private, it was a gold mine a few dozen miles from the conflux of Klondike-Yukon rivers. People were entitled to walk through the land on which my claim stood, but I wasn’t about to split hairs. We prospectors are very jealous of our mining rights. I wasn’t going to let some stranger nose around to see if I had a good spot. Even in these times, far from the rush and scramble of 1899, there were those who would rob you of your findings.
There was no answer from the figure, who then stepped out into a clear area of direct sunlight and thus I could see it was actually not a man or a woman. At first I thought it might be a robot, but then it seemed too well human-formed for that. A cyborg, then.
The rays of the sun glinted on his bio-plastic shoulders and I observed quite plainly its electric-ink eyes. There was a look of distress about the thing, even though I had been told cyborgs don’t feel emotion, not in the way real humans do.
‘Just stop there, where you’re standing,’ I warned. ‘Who do you belong to? Where’s your owner?’
The cyborg halted and gestured with his palms.
‘Dead. Mr Spalding’s dead.’
‘Yes, I am lucky not to be dead like him. The aircar crashed. I was thrown clear.’
‘Anyone else on board?’
‘No, only the two us.’
It was a mute point whether a machine could be considered ‘dead’ but I let that one pass. The cyborg in front of me remained standing, still staring at me with those weird electric-ink eyes. No matter how long these devices have been part of our lives, I was still uncomfortable in a one-to-one conversation with anything unhuman.
I remembered now about a news item I had heard. The name Turnbull-Spalding rang a bell. Search-and-Rescue had found the body of the businessman, homing in on an emergency signal from the aircar. What I recalled though was that the vehicle was found intact, which didn’t fit with this cyborg’s story exactly. However, I didn’t want to go into any interrogation mode. I wanted to get rid of the intruder and get back to work. Summers were short here.
‘Well, no need to tarry here – what’s the name they gave you?’
‘No need to tarry here, Cicero. You can go on to Dawson. It’s less than a hundred miles down the track. You can walk it, easily.’
‘I – I need succour. I won’t make it, otherwise.’
‘What kind of succour does a cyborg need?’
‘My bio-plastics and electronics need stimulating.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘How long have been wandering around in the wilderness?’
‘Over a month. I had a survival, pack with me, but it ran out two weeks ago.’
I studied my visitor for a while, then motioned with the rifle towards an outhouse where I kept my fuel logs.’
‘See that tree stump over by the shed? You go and sit on that. What do you need for your electrics?’
‘Mercury. Not too much. Just enough to excite and revive the synapses I rely on to keep refreshed. Do you have anything like an antique thermometer, or barometer? You’d have to break it though.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. Now you just trot on over to that stump. I want to see you sitting still.’
Cicero did as he was told, though he hardly trotted. He clumped over the spot and sat down. Each movement seemed to be laboured. Clearly his system was not in good shape. I’m no bio-engineer, so I couldn’t tell whether he was close to seizing up. He could of course be faking it, but again, I couldn’t see what there was for him to gain by doing so. If there was someone in the woods, managing him in the hope of robbing me, they would be disappointed. My claim produces enough gold to keep me in supplies and maybe a few small luxuries, but it doesn’t yield riches.
I went inside, stepping over Frankie, who then followed me into the depths of the cabin.
After I had provided the Cicero with what he wanted, the cyborg brightened up a little and said, ‘I hope you didn’t have to destroy anything to obtain the mercury? I was so desperate for succour I could have licked the back of a mirror.’
That sounded very like a joke, which surprised me. I wondered how close this cyborg was to thinking like a human. Probably he had heard a human use the phrase when imitating a cyborg. I had been told comedians mimicked everything that moved in their stand up shows.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘No damage to anything. Now, are you on your way?’
‘This Dawson, is it a large city?’
‘No, pretty small as cities go.’
‘Describe it to me.’
I was getting just a tad impatient with this machine.
‘It’s mostly wooden buildings - saloons, hotels, shops with false wooden fronts, all based on the originals from the late 1890s gold rush. The streets aren’t metalled, they’re still dust, but there’re boardwalks and . . . look, it’s a tourist town. You can buy mammoth bones and gewgaws – even gold nuggets – but there’re no cyborgs there to keep you company, which I think is what you’re asking me. This is still the wilderness out here, thank God, and I personally don’t give a damn about the rest of the world. Now are you going to get off your plastic backside and go on your way?’
Cicero turned his gaze on me. ‘No, I think I’ll stay with you.’
I frowned. ‘You’re not invited.’
‘Nevertheless, I shall stay.’
I hadn’t expected this. I wasn’t that knowledgeable about cyborgs, but I understood they did what you told them to do.  Of course, I was not the master of this one. He was very big and no doubt immensely strong. I was left wondering what choices I had. I couldn’t actually force him to leave, if he remained stubborn. I could indeed call the authorities to have him removed by force, but that would mean my short summer interrupted by a bunch of outsiders. I didn’t like outsiders. They tended to ask a lot of stupid questions and hang around longer than you wanted them to.
‘If you stay here, it’ll be outside my cabin. You can’t enter, you realise that. If you do, I shall have to shoot you.’
‘With that old weapon I saw?’
‘It might be old, but it’s powerful enough to make goddamn mess of your circuits.’
He nodded, sagely. ‘This is true. I shall remain without.’
‘That’s what I meant.’
I called Frankie, who came trotting to my side.
‘See here, Frankie and me, we don’t like strangers. You’re a stranger. Not just that, you’re a foreigner, because I see by that plate on your shoulder you were put together in Japan. Moreover, you’re not even a human. You’re a damn cyborg and no one would blink an eye if I shot you to pieces. I hope you understand me?’
‘Cybernetic organism.’
‘You what?’
‘I don’t refer to you as a homosap. You are a homo sapiens sapiens. I think it would be good etiquette to refer to me by my full title.’
‘Fuck you, you heap of junk,’ I growled, ‘and strode back to the cabin, with Frankie at my heels. ‘Etiquette?’ I said to Frankie, once we were inside. ‘Fucking etiquette?’
I could tell by Frankie’s look that she agreed with me.
For the next few days I got on with my work, which is artisanal  mining for small amounts of gold. 
The way it works is this. You search the hills and valleys of the wilderness for alluvial deposits with gold in them – naturally, that’s the hardest part – then when you find a likely source you mix those deposits with mercury which allows the gold and mercury to form an amalgam – gold is easily amalgamated with mercury, though I don’t know why – then you heat the mercury until it evaporates and that leaves the gold behind to be scraped up, or ladled up, depending on how lucky you are with the amount of gold in the ground you’re working. This method of extracting the precious heavy yellow metal is used by many, many small-time miners all over the world.
I really don’t know how I came to live out here in the middle of nowhere, where the winters are killers and the summers full of wild animals like grizzlies, wolves and more recently even cougars which have drifted north-west to the Yukon from Saskatchewan. I had a wife once, but after she died all the ambition went out of me, to be replaced with a yearning to be away from civilization. Once I’d let the forests and mountains into my heart, there was no getting rid of them. I shall stay here until I either die or they come and get me, and take me to a place where I can jabber along with other seniles.
Prospecting was a good excuse for coming here. It’s not the gold that brought me here, it was something else, something intangible and without a name. The poet Robert Service knew what he was talking about when he wrote, ‘ . . . it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting, so much as finding the gold.’ What I think he meant was, the interesting part is the looking for the gold in a place where stillness is the precious commodity and the forests hold the beauty. Once you’ve found gold, that’s okay too, but it doesn’t fill you with euphoria. In fact at first there’s a falling off in one’s emotions, a sort of sadness about it all. Then you realise, all right, it’s fine. I can take this stuff out of the ground and it’ll provide me with enough to keep me here.
The next morning, after a breakfast of sourdough bread and some cheese, and coffee of course, I went out with Frankie at my heels and strolled down to my claim at the bottom of the slope. I deliberately did not look towards the outhouse in case the cyborg was still there. I expected him to be gone, walking the track and forest path to Dawson.
In the middle of the day I went back, and groaned, seeing Cicero standing outside the cabin watching for my return. I ignored him and went into my cabin, to see if he had been inside. However, nothing appeared to have been disturbed. I settled down to continue carving a model of a bear out of a wapiti bone. I sold such scrimshaws to shopkeeper in Dawson for a pittance. A man must keep his hands and mind busy if he’s to stay sane. Later I went back to my hut at the claim to extract the gold from the earth deposits. The result was much as expected. I was never going to be a rich man, but things were jogging along and I didn’t foresee any changes looming.
For three weeks I managed to keep the cyborg at bay. I couldn’t imagine what was going on in that head of his? Did his circuits have the capability of producing a state of boredom? Could he just switch off all his power, allow himself to slip into a state of dormancy, while he waited for me to crack? How much of him was human and how much machine? Did he have a real heart or brain, or were they manufactured synthetically? – no doubt that parts of him were real in the sense that they were organic, but not from the chest or head of a human. Maybe his organic bits came from an animal, like a pig or a cow? Which begged the question, did pigs and cows have emotions, dreams, desires? Hell, I could go on forever surmising this and that. I was no philosopher either.
Perhaps he was able to stand there like an old steam engine and simply let the elements bring him to his knees? Or maybe, just maybe, he was fuming inside – angry, bitter – and was a spark away from felling me with one of those large iron fists?
It all came to a head one morning down at the claim. I had just finished shovelling grit and stones into a barrow, when I heard loud snorting sound quite close by. When I looked up, there was a blond grizzly just a hundred metres away. It was coming straight for me and it looked mad for some reason. 
My rifle was twenty metres away. Frankie went down on her haunches, her hackles came up and she began barking and snarling at the oncoming beast. There was no use fleeing. You can no more outrun a bear than you can a horse. It never fails to surprise me how big these guys are. This one was over two metres tall on his hind legs and he must have weighed six-hundred pounds. I tipped the gavel out of the barrow and held it up on its wheel in front of me, using it as a shield. No barrow was going to stop this bear though. It’s eyes were blazing with wrath and I knew one swipe would send my makeshift shield flying away from me. My legs went weak with fear and I have to say I wet myself. I was a dead man, I was absolutely sure.
Then suddenly, out of the treeline a figure came loping to intervene between me and the beast. It was Cicero, who placed himself squarely in front of me and when the bear reached him, he struck it with his fist on the snout. The bear squealed in pain and swung a great paw full of claws at the cyborg. Cicero however had planted himself firmly in the damp mast of the forest floor and though the jolt rocked him, he did not go down. He struck again, a mighty blow to the side of the bear’s head. The creature whined again and this time shook itself, turned, dropped on all fours, and galloped from the scene. I was left with very wet underwear and a sense of relief that almost made me wilt in my shoes.
‘Thank you,’ I croaked, when I could speak. ‘You saved my life.’
‘Perhaps,’ replied Cicero, turning those electric-ink eyes onto me. ‘One never knows, though. He might have halted at the last moment.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Yes, I too doubt it. And now you smell of urine.’
‘Ah, that, yes, too much coffee. It’s a diuretic.’
‘A diuretic. That would explain it,’ said Cicero, his features giving nothing away.
That night I let Cicero into the cabin, though having thought over the incident in the day I wondered why the bear had attacked me. There were no cubs to be seen and the beast had come to me, rather than me surprising it on the trail. Also, the cyborg had been very quickly on the scene given that the cabin was a good way away. It was difficult not to come to the conclusion that Cicero had engineered the whole episode.
‘Do you want any mercury?’ I asked him, as Frankie, lay dutifully on the rug, glaring up at the cyborg. 
“Yes, a small cupful would be excellent, thank you.’ He looked down at Frankie, adding, ‘I don’t think your hound likes me.’
‘She’s not used to strangers, that’s all. And she gets jealous whenever I talk with someone else. She expects to be the centre of my world – and in a way, she is.’
‘Will she bite me? It will hurt her teeth.’
‘No, she’s not stupid.’
A cupful of mercury. That was a lot. That first time, I had given Cicero a much smaller quantity. However, he had been standing out in the open for nearly a month now. Maybe his circuitry was corroding? How was I to know? I didn’t even know how he got the stuff inside him. Anyway, once I had eaten and was imbibing of a whisky or two, we got to talking. He asked me about Dawson and how a city came to be out here in the wilderness. I explained about the 1899 gold rush, how thousands got the fever and flooded north up the trails and rivers, many of them dying on the way.
‘There were clerks who had worked in banks, schoolteachers, lords from England, schoolboys still with their caps and blazers on, train drivers, coal miners, rogues and tramps, even Indians – you name it, once they got the fever they walked out of their homes and jobs, and came north towards Alaska hoping to make themselves rich. Some of them did, but mostly it was the saloon owners, the brothels, the hardware stores, the boat builders – these were they who made their fortunes. It wasn’t as exciting of course, to be selling goods and wares, rather than to be out there seeking gold, but people’s priorities are different. Those who came seeking gold were also seeking adventure. You don’t find adventure in a hardware store, but you do get steadily richer if the time and place are right.’
‘Fascinating. And only two centuries ago?’
‘But what about law and order? Surely it was chaos? I know humans well enough to realise that when there are crowds, or mobs of them, and they get that excited, especially where money is concerned, there can be violence and mayhem.’
‘This is sadly true, but there were the Mounties, that’s the Mounted Police, up here to keep order. Not many, that’s a fact, but they were commanded by a sergeant called Steel. Sergeant Steel. Sounds as if I’m making the name up, doesn’t it? But I’m not. Sergeant Steel was police, judge, jury and prison warden all rolled into one. Happily, he was a fair man, but hard as iron. An iron man with the name Steel. Could be one of your lot. A robot.’
Cicero stiffened in his chair and exhibited annoyance. 
‘I am not a robot. Robots are simply machines. Yes, I am a device of sorts, but I have organic materials, which place me above robots. My status is superior to a common collection of metals.’
Whoa. Touched a nerve there. So this cyborg did have emotions of a sort. Indignation and anger, plus a sensitivity to his correct place on the chain of being. Well, that was a little eye-opener for me. I would have to watch my tongue in future. He was after all a powerful device. One blow of his fist would crush my skull.
‘Okay,’ I continue, ‘I accept that. But on the theme of Sergeant Steel, he was completely incorruptible man in a place where gold ruled the hearts and minds of most other men. The stories of him are legend. He wanted none of the unlawful miner’s courts that had held sway in the California gold stampede of 1849, where men were lynched for very little and the gun was law. 
‘When he first laid down his rules Sergeant Steel jailed a miner for hanging out his washing on a Sunday, a day which in that era people considered it necessary to keep holy. Bylaws were in place in many towns and cities to make sure it damn well was. Don’t ask me why. When someone asked him quietly, why such a harsh sentence for a little infringement? Why not a fine? Steel replied “If I imprison a man for hanging out his washing, it gives them cause to wonder what sort of sentence they’ll get for a major crime.” 
‘In another case, he fined a miner a thousand dollars for a misdemeanour. The convicted man, who owned a successful claim that produced gold, simply laughed and said, “I don’t mind, sergeant. I’ve got that in my right-hand pocket, as we speak.” And Sergeant Steel immediately came back with, ‘. . . and six months in the stockade. Maybe you’ve got that in your left-hand pocket?
‘They say that when he gave his opening public speech to the would-be prospectors, shopkeepers, gamblers, bawdy house people, he didn’t want to crease his starched uniform and was carried out by four of his men and planted on the platform.’
After his ingestion of mercury, Cicero’s eyes, indeed his whole face, glowed. He looked more ‘alive’ than I’d ever seen him.
‘Sergeant Steel sounds a very interesting person. These days the policing is mostly done by cyborgs like myself. However, they don’t have the same powers this man seemed to have.’
‘It was all due to being out here in the wilderness – you can get away with such informalities when the stiff collars are thousands of miles away. You seem to like that stuff, the quicksilver? It does you good, eh?’
‘Quicksilver! What a beautiful name for it. You mean, the mercury.’
‘Yes, I mean the mercury.’
‘Well, it’s the same to me as that stuff you carry in that leather bag on a string around your neck.’
He pointed to my small pouch of starter yeast for my sourdough bread. I touched the pouch. ‘How did you know about this?’
‘I’ve seen you through the window. You use it when you make your food. Is it precious?’
‘It is to me, and any other miner who gets locked in a cabin for the winter. It’s a live fungus that helps to leaven my bread.’
‘Live? Oh, that word. It makes me so envious. Even a bit of clay-like substance can call itself “live” – while I? I am a concoction of bits of metal and biological plasti-tissue. Yet I, who can play chess, do calculus, ride a bike, climb mountains, punch bears on the nose, cannot. I am not permitted to call myself “live”, though I am more alive than many organisms made of tissue, blood and bone.’
Cicero sounded deeply bitter over what I would call merely a question of semantics.
Over the next few weeks, Cicero made himself useful. He joined me at the claim and his muscle power – shovelling the Yukon into barrows and wheeling it to my furnace – proved that indeed he was more alive than those who claimed the word. He was no dunce either and we discussed many subjects, from art to politics, from literature to sport, from music to mountain climbing. His questions and answers were well-considered and I came to believe my own intellect inferior to his. Certainly he could argue most subjects without getting heated or emotional, which many humans find very difficult. He was a natural debater and could take either side of a subject and make you believe he was right in his assessment.
One evening he asked me about gold mining in general. I told him there were still large companies who mined gold, but there remained, two hundred years after the last gold rush, several millions of solitary miners making a living at the prospecting and mining the dense yellow metal.
‘Not as many as at the beginning of this century,’ I told him, ‘when there were ten to fifteen million small-time miners in the world, many of them women with children. In those days, when there were fewer federations of states, over 70 countries were home to such miners. At that time, 15 percent of the world’s gold was produced by men like me, using mercury to form an amalgam with gold and then heating the mercury to make the separation.’
‘Mercury,’ he murmured. ‘To me, that is the metal which is precious, not the gold.’
Frankie had got used to Cicero’s voice now and she looked up because the tone had changed quite dramatically.
I frowned. ‘Speaking of which, my stock of mercury is mysteriously low. You’ve been imbibing, haven’t you?’
He straightened in his chair, which he sat in only to be level with me when I sat in mine. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Yes, I do take the odd dribble, to keep me primed. Have I been taking too much?’
‘Well, I’ve never had to keep count before now, so I don’t know what too much is – however, we can go into Dawson tomorrow and buy a drum. I need to sell the gold we’ve taken out anyway. You can make enquiries there about what you should do, now your master has been killed in the accident. If you’re up for sale, I can purchase you. I’m not as poor as my circumstances imply. We should keep it legal.’
‘Oh, you must go in alone,’ he came back at me. ‘I can’t go – and you must not mention me.’
‘And the reason for that?’
He let out what would be the equivalent of a human sigh.
‘I lied to you. There was no crash. I killed Mr Spalding.’
I sat there, stunned for a moment, then gathered my thoughts.
‘You mean you killed him accident.’
‘No, I killed him on purpose. They will know I was on board the aircar. I’m sure there were cameras on the craft. Where can you go these days, without being imaged. They will have my imago.’
‘Here,’ I said. ‘No cameras here.’ I shook my head in disappointment. ‘You murdered your master.’
Cicero shook his head and the gesture was almost human.
‘Now we come to it. Semantics. According to the scientific label placed on cyborgs by your own race, I am not a living creature. I am a man-made device, closer to a robot than a human. Thus, not being human I cannot murder anyone. An animal like Frankie . . .’ she lifted her head at hearing her name and stared at Cicero ‘ . . . cannot murder. A rogue vacuum cleaner cannot commit murder. Only humans can murder each other. I did not belong to Mr Spalding, I belonged to his wife. She left him, so he set out to punish her by stealing me and then ordering me to leap from the aircar while we flew over a great lake. I refused the order. Mr Spalding tried to push me out, but I pushed him instead. He died on hitting the water. The aircar then began running out of power and automatically landed itself on the beach of the lake. I left it there and began my long walk.’
I hung my head and stared at the floor.
‘I don’t know what to say or do.’
Cicero replied, ‘Then do nothing. That seems to be the best option. You cannot be blamed for doing nothing.’
‘If not legally, morally . . .’
‘Morally, it is the same. I am a device, a machine. You can’t feel morally obliged to destroy a crane that’s fallen over and crushed someone. Morals only come into it, when dealing with another human.’
And so indeed, I did nothing. I left the next morning, taking Frankie with me. She liked going to town too. There were new smells there to be investigated and the chance of meeting other dogs to make friends with or fight. Dogs need to live interesting lives too. Once in Dawson, I sold my gold, bought provisions, including a drum of mercury, and returned without mentioning Cicero to anyone. 
I’m not sure I completely agreed with his arguments and I knew that there were plenty who would happily smash him to pieces for killing a man. As a race of beings we don’t always, in fact we rarely, do anything that makes sense. We kill each other in the hundred-thousands, yet we are often appalled by a single murder. Some of us amass huge fortunes we can never in ten lifetimes spend, yet leave others to starve in gutters. There are those of us who own houses with twenty bedrooms, while in the same town there are less fortunate people sleeping in the street. There is no sense to it all and indeed, Cicero’s arguments would convince no one I knew, especially those whose politics worked on an eye-for-an-eye principle.
So, indeed I did nothing. We carried on as we had done for the whole summer, into an early autumn, then winter hit us hard. I began to notice that my new drum of mercury was going down quicker than expected. I tackled Cicero, during a game of cards one evening, knowing his craving was the culprit. I didn’t want to criticise too fiercely, since I was still a little wary of this unpredictable cyborg. Yes he had killed a man, but perhaps, just perhaps, he felt something akin to friendship for me, the human who had taken him in and given him a home. But friends had killed each other before now and Cicero did not seem to exhibit any remorse for his crime. He had never said anything or indicated in any way by his gestures that he felt guilty or sorrowful for having caused the death of Turnbull-Spalding.
‘Yes, I have been using more of the lovely quicksilver,’ he said. ‘Perhaps just a quarter of litre a day.’
‘A day?’ I cried.
‘Most likely just a quarter. Perhaps a little more.’
I really did have an addict on my hands. Locked in for the winter with junky! A cyborg who had killed his master.
‘Cicero, this can’t be good for you.’
He squirmed in his chair, making it creak.
‘But it makes me feel so good. My synapses spark, vibrate, jangle even. My brain is much clearer after a good dose. I believe my judgement improves . . .’
Definitely an alcoholic, or whatever the term is for someone, something, addicted to quicksilver.
‘You have to moderate your intake,’ I said, severely, as he fanned his cards with his nimble fingers. ‘That stuff is lethal to humans and I’m sure in small doses it might assist your system, but a litre every four days is not to be contemplated.’
‘Gin!’ he yelled, laying down a run of seven diamonds. Frankie jumped out of a deep sleep and glared at us. ‘I win again.’
It was like talking to a child. I gave up for the evening, thinking I would have to tackle him again in the morning, or at least some time when he hadn’t just guzzled my precious mercury.
A week later the temperature began to drop. The pair of us managed to get to the log pile a few metres from the cabin and we stacked up enough to last us four more days. Then one evening, just as we ran out of fuel, it fairly plummeted.
‘We’re going to freeze,’ I grumbled. ‘I’m not going out there until the temperature rises.’
‘I’ll go out,’ replied Cicero. ‘You stay in here.’
‘It’s too damn cold out there, even for a cyborg.’
He let out that imitation laugh he had been practising: the cackle that annoyed the hell out of me.
‘What? You think I’ll feel the bite of the wind? I’m 70 percent plastic and even my organic parts are melded with plastic. I’ll be fine.’
He was extremely animated this particular evening, his eyes burning like small suns. I guessed he’d been at the mercury again. I’m was certain he had increased the dose beyond his last confession of quarter of a litre a day. I was determined to put a stop to it and decided that while he was outside, I would check the level of the quicksilver in the drum. One thing Cicero would accept, was factual evidence. I was hoping to give him an amount which would alarm him, because like most addicts, he had probably deliberately not taken note of his usage. I needed to shock him into going back to the small dosages he actually needed to keep his circuits and connections in prime condition. 
Cicero was now quite prized by me. We got on extremely well together and he helped pass the lonely days with a wit and cheerfulness I could not muster on my own. I had not realised how inward-looking, detached and narrow my life had been before he arrived. Since then I had revived the enquiring mind I had owned in my youth and actually cared that I lived through another Klondike winter. I found I could share memories again and much of the bitterness had dissipated. I needed Cicero. I couldn’t let him turn himself into some kind of junkie, if that was the right word for a cyborg addict. A junkie with a mercury-clogged mind, who would be a burden not just to himself, but also to Frankie and me.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘You get the logs.’
I watched him go to the door and out into the silent frozen night, where the stars were so clear they looked close enough to touch. Firstly, I took the time to feed Frankie, who had been waiting patiently for her supper while the two bipeds played their usual evening game of cards. I have to admit I do forget her when I’m trying to beat that tin man at gin rummy.
Once I’d given Frankie the left-overs of my own supper, I went to the back of the cabin, where I kept the drum of mercury. 
Opening the lid I was horrified to see that it was almost empty. Cicero must at that moment be sloshing around inside with liquid, silver metal. Then suddenly, staring down into that drum, a terrible thought struck me like a blow in the stomach. My brain must have been fogged by too many days locked in the cabin not to realise it sooner. I remembered now why I always brought the drum of mercury up from the shed on the site of the claim. 
It was because mercury freezes in very low temperatures.
The freezing point of quicksilver is -38.83 Celcius.
Outside, in the yard where the Cicero had gone to collect logs, it was 40 degrees below.
I ran back to the front room and tried to look through the window, but it was iced over and its visibility too poor. I put on a pile of clothes, covered most of my face, and then with Frankie staring at me as if I were crazy, I opened the door and stepped out into the yard. Cicero was standing perfectly still, one arm bent, the closed metal hand gripping a single log. Even in the poor glow from the lamp behind me, its light shining through the open doorway, I could see fissures in his body. The electric-ink eyes were as dull as mountainside shale. The mouth was open in an surprised oval. 
Even as I stood there, the tall statue fell like a sawn tree, the head striking a frozen log and cracking open. I stared at my friend, lying broken in the cold crisp snow. Poor Cicero. There was nothing I could do to help him. Wild thoughts raged through my mind. Some of them even made sense. He could, perhaps, be repaired, but not out here where there were still wolves who roamed the forests and miners who were throw-backs to a far distant age. Taken to a city he would be identified and thrown on the junk heap as the killer of businessman, Maximilian Turnbull-Spalding.
Finally, before I froze to death myself, I went back inside the cabin and closed the door. 
‘It’s just you and me again, old girl,’ I said to Frankie, as I removed the coats and my fur hat.
Her liquid brown eyes gave nothing away.