The Mechanical Vanian
Sparks popped and flew as raindrops touched the experimental wires. Workers in wool shirts and suspenders struggled to throw blankets over the exposed sections of the cables, but backed off as if each spark was the swing of a lion’s paw. Most of them hadn’t seen such complex electrical machinery in their lives. The temporary system of wires and bulbs was commissioned specifically to light the World’s Fair and demonstrate the American bottling of lightning to the world. Though the best meteorological authority in Second York had insisted there would be no rain during the first week of the fair, the thick oozing clouds overhead brought hours of evening drizzle anyway. The fondness of the city pigeons for pecking tiny holes in the casing of the wires was not predicted either. On a nearby brick wall a poster slowly dissolved in the rain.
Welcome to the 1903 Two York World’s Fair! Incredible new science including the life-saving braking elevator and the mechanical Vanian! New marvelous foods! Have you tried spun sugar? Festivities will continue into the night thanks to our stupendous electrical lighting with the power of alternating current!
An autowagon rolled past the poster, its engine hissing quietly under the sounds of the crowd a few streets over in the heart of the fairgrounds. A raindrop hit the engine panel next to the driver’s feet and turned to steam. The driver searched for a place to park his wagon so he could enter the fair and see the only attraction he really cared about. He rolled past an imposing three-story building that took up an entire block. A sign out front read World’s Fair Hotel. Something about the urban castle put the driver off, like he was looking at an abandoned wasp’s nest, so he kept going.
A wire nearby popped and rained bouncing sparks into a puddle where they quickly drowned. I still don’t believe in this electricity business, the driver thought. He was still a firm believer that phlogiston, the caloric-filled ore that powered his wagon, was the power source of the future. How could you beat a stone made of solid heat with something as difficult to catch as a lightning bolt? The rocks don’t try to get away from you.
He was a Natural American, meaning his ancestors had been there to see the Protestants arrive in their wooden ships hundreds of years ago. He was fifty-three years old but still as sharp as an alley cat. His graying hair was pulled back into a ponytail and his dark brown eyes drew focus away from his sagging cheeks and yellowing teeth. He wore simple practical clothing with a moose hide jacket. A necklace of wampum coins, the currency of his land, hung around his neck.
Eventually he found a hostel that was more to his liking and had a lot for parking next to it complete with a gate and a watchman. He stored his vehicle, walked inside, and rented a cheap room from the lovely older woman behind the desk. He counted out several coins of colony money and handed them over.
“Have you come for the fair?” she asked quietly with a knowing smile, as if they were sharing secrets. He simply smiled and nodded. He was there for the fair, but not for fun. This was a scouting mission. The company he worked for was always eager to check out the latest technological trends of the fair, but never bothered to show their own hand with an exhibit. It was better to innovate in the background. Get the mistakes out of the way before there were public eyes on them.
He dropped some luggage in his room before departing for the fair. Once he got past the fence of twitching sparking wires it became a different world. Children ran around with paper cones topped with gray puffs of spun sugar that looked like the dreary clouds overhead. Men and women laughed and pointed at the colorful signs and the costumed promoters.
He saw a platform to his left with two volunteers from the crowd, a young man and woman, standing on it. It rose slowly into the air and the woman hugged her man tighter and tighter as it went. Suddenly the platform dropped and the girl screamed giddily as the crowd gasped. Two brakes on the sides of the platform screeched and stopped them before disaster occurred. The showman pulled the volunteers off and extolled the miraculous new elevator brakes. Two new volunteers stepped up. Making safety into a carnival ride. It’s certainly clever. He moved on, weaving his way through the crowd.
Eventually he came to the centerpiece of the fairgrounds, a crystal palace in the shape of a cross with a massive glass dome. The flag of the United Colonies of America flew at the end of each prong of the cross. It depicted a rattlesnake divided into sections, with each section marked by a colony’s initials. It had been the symbol of this country since they’d won independence from the British more than a century prior. It was a feat that would have been far more difficult and bloody if they hadn’t had the support of the Natural Americans. Now the two nations frequently collaborated and lived in relative harmony: the Nomads and Tribes of America west of the Misizibi River and the U.C.A to the east.
He purchased a ticket for the palace and walked inside. He was just in time to catch the machine’s last show for the evening. He was barely able to squeeze into the tiny theater with the two hundred other visitors who had heard tell of the game-player.
The lights dimmed. The curtains opened. Something quietly wheeled its way to center stage. Its base was a rectangular wooden cabinet edged in brass some six feet long. A red and white marble chess set sat on top of the cabinet. Behind the cabinet a metallic torso was attached to the base. Its two thin arms hung out over the game, each ending with three mechanical fingers that touched at the tip. The brass automaton wore a black jacket with silver designs on the lapels and tight sleeves. It had a simple black hat and a fake bushy moustache framing its circular, glowing, orange eyes. It swiveled to face the audience.
“Is it electric?” someone whispered.
“Can it see us?”
“It’s just a toy; there has to be a man inside.”
A young man with red oiled hair and a red vest stepped out to greet the audience. There were a few disappointed sighs from the crowd that the young man picked up on. He swallowed nervously. They were here to see the creator of the machine, not some kid trained to bark at them.
“Good evening ladies and gentleman,” he started, voice catching in his throat. “It is my pleasure to present, on behalf of the fair, the mechanical Vanian!” There was a sound like a flashbulb. Tiny puffs of whitish smoke came out of the Vanian’s head, where ears might be. Then it raised one of its arms and waved at the crowd. Children waved back. Maybe they have the right idea, the scouting man thought. It could be polite to wave back.
“This marvel of machinery comes to us from the mysterious land of Transylvania,” the presenter continued. “It has been lent to us by its creators because they want to show the world the power of thinking machines. Creating life is no longer in the realm of the gods.” The memorized lines sounded very strange coming out of the boy, like hearing a parrot insist it was Aristotle. “Its clockwork mind has allowed it to master the gentleman’s game of chess. Do we have any volunteers who would like to test their wits against Transylvanian ingenuity?”
A skeptical man raised his hairy hand, the dirty fingernails catching the presenter’s eye. The boy called him up. Kpof! The Vanian flash-bulbed again. Out came the smoke. It turned to face the volunteer.
“What’s that noise he’s making?” the volunteer asked.
“The Vanian’s eyes don’t work like ours,” the boy explained more to the crowd than the volunteer. “They don’t emit constant rays of diffuse light like ours. His work just like a camera; he takes a picture every few moments and then his clockwork mind analyzes the shading in the image and determines what he is looking at.”
The kid switched pronouns, the scout noticed. ‘He’ was an ‘it’ thirty seconds ago. I bet the Vanians wrote those lines for him. Subtly sinking into the marks of an individual. Did you actually do it in those stormy castles of yours? Can that thing actually think?
The game began. The volunteer moved a pawn. Kpof! The Vanian moved one as well. Several more moves. The Vanian took one of the man’s knights and moved it off the board. Eager to trick it, the volunteer made a hushing gesture to the crowd, smiled deviously, and placed the knight back on the board. Kpof! The Vanian removed it again and this time tossed it on the floor. It rolled away and the presenter, obviously startled, chased it off stage and then returned it to the edge of the cabinet. The audience roared with laughter, though some seemed genuinely offended at the machine’s presumptuousness. The Vanian absorbed the praise and frustration stoically. Slowly it reduced the presence of the volunteer’s white pieces until the board was ruled by red pawns and rooks. Kpof! The machine clamped its hands together and raised them into the air.
“That means checkmate,” the presenter told the volunteer with shrugged shoulders. “The machine wins.”
“That’s a load of manure!” the volunteer declared. “All that flashing threw me off! ‘Sides, everybody knows white loses more.”
That’s at least one liar on stage, the scout thought. Whoever goes first has the advantage… maybe that’s why the Vanians bother showing these things off. Then they’re not stuck reacting. They’re building the landscape, right or wrong. The future, presented by the philosophy of ‘me first’.
“Chess is no test anyway,” the volunteer continued down his list of excuses. “Checkers is my game. That’s a thinking man’s game.”
“Is that a challenge?” the presenter asked. The volunteer looked at him, bewildered. “Is that a challenge?” he asked again, this time to the audience. They told him it definitely was. The boy strutted up to the machine. Kpof! It turned to face the crowd. The boy, stage fright drowned out and destroyed by the applause and laughter the machine earned, pulled the cabinet open. The left side of the machine was full of moving parts. The scout squinted and tried to identify any parts of the mechanism he could, but he was too far away. Puffs of smoke from cigars and cigarettes clouded the air over the crowd. This isn’t doing me any good, he realized. I have to get closer.
The right side of the cabinet held a stack of different games, the implication being that the machine was a master of them all. The games did not captivate the audience so much as the revelation that there was no man inside. The offended in the audience grew more offended. A few men and women with pursed mouths gathered up their umbrellas and left. They wanted to go back to elevator brakes and popcorn.
The presenter pulled a checkerboard out of the pile and swapped it with the chessboard. He set up the black and red pieces. Clack clack clack. The new game started. Halfway through the volunteer started taking a lot longer to make his moves, but the machine always responded promptly. When the human’s turns started to take more than a minute the audience urged him to speed up. If he was to be the game-playing equivalent of John Henry, he needed to be able to think as fast as the machine. When he slowed further he started receiving boos.
Eventually the machine raised its arms in victory. The volunteer stormed offstage, swearing into the cracks in the floor. The presenter asked for more volunteers. The Vanian beat a young woman at backgammon. It beat an old man at halma. They went through the entire stack of games. At the end of the show the audience seemed far more worn than the Vanian. It gave no indication of slowing or squealing for oil. After the presenter closed the curtains the fairgoers filed out slowly, somewhat more demoralized than amazed. Some of them realized what it was like to be under the march of progress and not in the procession.
The scout remained behind. He dodged the sweeping eyes of the ushers and inserted himself behind the curtain so expertly that there was hardly a ripple in the fabric. The boy and the Vanian had already left the stage, but the scout heard the machine’s wheels off to the left and moved towards the sound. He found the boy and the automaton near a stack of wooden pallets and sandbags. The boy was applying some sort of oil to the top of the cabinet and wiping away the fingerprints of the crowd.
“Excuse me young man,” the scout announced himself. The startled boy spun around, knocking over the bottle of oil. He quickly righted it.
“I-I’m sorry sir. The show is over. You’ll have to leave.”
“I was stuck in the back for most of it. I was hoping you’d let me take a closer look at it.”
“That’s against the rules. Nobody is supposed to get near it except for me. It’s very delicate you see. It would be my head if anything happened to it.”
“I don’t need to touch it,” the scout reasoned. “I just want to look. I’ll leave far fewer marks than the volunteers.” He pulled out his wallet and let the boy see how packed it was. “I don’t mind paying for the chance.”
“Are you… I can’t sir. It’s against the rules,” the boy repeated.
“Maybe the show ran a little long,” the scout said. He pulled out one bill. “You decided to take one last volunteer.” Two bills. “The volunteer was very polite, he didn’t even touch anything.” Three bills. “All things considered, he helped end the show on a very positive note.” Four bills. He held them out to the boy.
“You promise you won’t touch it?” he asked weakly. He was not from a wealthy family. The fair had chosen presenters by drawing names from Two York’s main youth program for boys. He’d been lucky. Well, technically, the Kinneman boy had been lucky, but the fair people didn’t like the big birthmark on his cheek, so they picked again. Then he was lucky. The clothes he wore now were the nicest he owned and they were a gift from the fair so he would look decent on stage.
“I won’t leave a hair behind,” the scout promised.
“I guess it’s alright,” the boy said. He reached out and grabbed the money like it was skewered on a scorpion’s tail. He took a few steps back, rolled up the bills, and placed them in his sock. The scout approached the machine’s face. Kpof! The smoke curled towards the ceiling and was pulled away by a draft.
“It’s still active?” he asked the boy.
“We don’t know how to turn it off. The Vanians said his battery would last the whole time we had him.”
“Is the battery phlogistic or electric?”
“I don’t know. I’m only allowed to open the cabinet and touch the games. Then I clean him up.”
“Can you open the cabinet so I can have a look?”
“Since they let me do it on stage I guess it’s not a problem.” The boy pulled the cabinet open and stepped back again. The scout bent over and stared inside. There were a hundred spinning brass gears staring back at him, which he immediately recognized as a smokescreen. The gears were likely part of a thin plate animated by machinery to both give the crowd an image they would find compelling and hide the actual inner workings. The scout frowned. There was no way to see the real mechanism without breaking the boy’s rules. He stood back up and stared at the young man, scrutinizing his character. The boy stared back like a frog trying to decide whether or not it needed to bolt back into the pond. The scout considered himself an excellent judge of character, and it seemed unlikely that the boy, though intimidated, would let him break the rules without making a noisy fuss.
“Would you like to talk to him?” the boy asked, eager to move the scout’s stare back to the machine.
“Not exactly.” The boy reached into the game side of the cabinet and pulled out a small wooden box with a few metal flourishes. He placed it in a depression on top of the cabinet and locked it in place. “It’s like a telegraph. He taps the metal bar there and spells things out in Morse code. I learned last summer, so I can tell you what he’s saying.”
“Do you think this machine can think?” the scout asked the boy. Look at me asking a kid. Means I’ve got no clue if it’s possible either.
“The Vanians said he doesn’t really. It’s just an illusion. You can ask him for yourself though.” The scout turned back to the machine.
“Can you understand me?” he asked it.
-.– . …
“Yes,” the boy translated.
“Are you a thinking machine?” the scout asked.
.. -.-. — ..- -. –
“I count,” the boy translated.
“Is counting like thinking?” the scout asked. The metal bar tapped and clicked a response much longer than the last. The boy struggled to keep it all in his head.
“Thoughts are numbers of multiple dimensions,” he translated.
“Do you have original thoughts?”
“I respond to the numbers I count on the photographs.”
“How do you decide what response is appropriate?”
“Who gave you your thresholds?”
“My builders: a company called Forge and Learn. I was commissioned by the Transylvanian Academy of Sciences.”
“Why do they have you playing games? Aren’t you capable of much more?”
“I may not answer.”
“I guess that’s past one of your thresholds.”
“Have you learned anything about Two York?” The scout wasn’t sure where to take his train of questions. Anything ‘over the threshold’ was useless to him, so he decided to analyze its ability to absorb information.
“Tell me the most notable thing you have learned about Two York.”
“It is ill.” The boy looked at the machine and then went through the taps again in his head. He’d heard correctly.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I refer to volcanic palpitations.”
“What does he mean?” the scout asked the boy, who suddenly, somehow, managed to look even more nervous.
“There have been a few folks sick with them around here. They just up and explode with no warning. They’ve started some fires too.”
“You mean spontaneous human combustion?”
“Yeah, we call it palpitations around here. Do you Indians have it?”
“Not in the N.T.A. It’s a white man’s ailment,” the scout said brusquely. He never did like being called an Indian. You’d think when an explorer made such a clear mistake it would be corrected quickly. “Why are volcanic palpitations the most notable thing about the city?” he asked the machine.
“There will be more,” the boy translated when the clicks finished. His pallor intensified.
“How many more?”
“How do you know?”
“The numbers are rising.”
“The numbers in the photographs that show human breath. The distortion from caloric is rising.” The scout played with his wampum necklace. All human beings needed a certain amount of caloric to survive. It was the very substance of heat, an odorless gas that only revealed its light red coloration when concentrated to a point where touching it could set your flesh ablaze. It kept all living things from freezing to death. It had been on Earth before life itself, leaking in through the holes in the firmament. Like anything else, an excess of it was not very good for you.
“How can we stop the plague of volcanic palpitations?” the scout asked.
“I don’t know,” the boy answered for the machine. He turned to the machine himself and asked a couple of questions. “Am I going to get it? Is my mom going to get it?” The Vanian tapped out its answer.
“What did it say?” the scout asked when the boy didn’t immediately translate.
“He says he doesn’t know. I want to warn my friends, but I’m not supposed to tell anyone what he says.”
“If their lives are seriously at risk, I would tell them anyway,” the scout offered. The boy nodded. “Do you know any ways to prevent the disease?”
“Nobody knows anything about it. All I know is that the firemen get to them before the doctors.”
“Maybe I should cut my visit short.”
“There’s only been a handful. Nobody’s seen a miasma or anything. Maybe he’s looking at the pictures wrong. He does just play games,” the boy suggested. The scout knew he was just trying to convince himself his home was safe. There’s nothing more I can learn from this thing. If the Vanians say it can’t think, then it can’t think. They might hide things, but they never lie.
“Thanks for your help kid. I’ll be on my way.”
“Oh, sure thing sir,” the boy said. He grabbed his rag and started polishing again while the scout turned to leave. Kpof! The Vanian started tapping again. The scout turned back.
“I didn’t ask it anything,” he said. The boy just shrugged and listened to the tapping.
“He says he has a message for you.”
“What is it?” More tapping.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense. He says he sees graves… but they’re not dug yet. Small graves. He sees people burning and pretending that they’re fine. He sees a hunter. He sees the numbers that will become those numbers”
“What kind of trick is this?” the scout asked the boy.
“I don’t know sir,” he whimpered. He held up his hands to show he wasn’t manipulating the device. “You know the Vanians used to send those mechanical fortune tellers to the fair, like the great shadow count and Lugo the perceptive. Maybe they just threw some of that into this one. It’s the first fortune I’ve heard out of him I swear.”
The scout turned around and walked away. He waited for the sound of another photograph, but it didn’t come. The device did not try to pull him back. After that night it went back to its regular schedule of games and never dabbled in fortune telling again.
The scout exited the crystal palace and joined a thinning crowd; the fair was closing for the night. Yawns overtook laughter. The screech of the elevator brakes became irritating without the roaring audience drowning it out. He felt his stomach growl, but he didn’t dare try to appease it with the sugared and oiled fare of the fair, especially not the crusty dry pieces left at the bottom of the carts near day’s end. He remembered the venison jerky and the bottles of snake oil soda he had stored in his wagon.
Before he left he spotted a standing machine with a large lever hanging off the side. Just what I need, he thought, a machine that does what it’s told. He approached it and checked to see if it took wampum coins as well as American pennies. It did. He removed his necklace, separated one coin, and placed it on the machine. Then he cranked the lever around several times. The machine swallowed the coin, flattened it, pressed in a new design, and spat out his souvenir. He examined the design on the elongated coin: fireworks exploding over the Two York skyline. Hope those aren’t people.
Everyone left the fair. Only confused bugs admired the buzzing blinking lights as they shut down for the night. The rain had nearly stopped. The scout walked down a dark street towards the hostel, doing his best to avoid the many puddles. When he reached the wagon he climbed into the back of it and searched through his belongings for the snacks.
Shwush. His head lifted at the sound. It seemed someone else wasn’t as good at keeping out of the puddles. The sound came again. The splashes started to overlap. Sounds like they’re trying to wrestle and swim at the same time, he thought once the sound had gotten louder. Someone yelped. That was the last straw for the scout. He grabbed a highly polished coach gun from the back of the wagon. He popped the two barrels open and loaded a pair of unusual silvery shells with an orange sheen into the gun. Kwiting!
The scout hopped out of the wagon and ran down the back of the parking lot to find the commotion. When he rounded a corner he saw four men, three with their backs to him and one pressed up against a brick wall with a forearm against his throat. They all stood in a deep puddle with the water clawing its way up their pant legs. It takes a special kind of scum to feel at home standing in the gutter. He listened in.
“Mr. Dawson wasn’t satisfied with your forecast,” the man with the aggressive forearm told his victim. “You told him it wasn’t going to rain. You said sunny skies for the fair! You know how much money he loses when folks look out their window, see that drip-drip-drip, and decide not to go to the fair?” He reduced the pressure so his victim could speak.
“I didn’t make any promises,” the victim squeaked. “I told him sixty-three percent chance of sun!”
“Oh yeah, what if I say there’s a sixty-three percent chance we don’t bash your head in right now? You like those odds clouds-for-brains? Huh?” another of the men threatened.
“I don’t like them…” their victim whimpered.
The scout raised his gun. He aimed at the edge of the puddle just behind them and pulled the trigger. Bauf! The gun kicked back as it spat fire. Flaming pellets embedded in the stone street and sizzled madly. The thugs whirled around. One of them pulled a knife and immediately pushed it back into his pocket when the scout aimed at him. The blade sliced along his thigh and he stood there, stupidly, while a red stain grew on his pants.
“Who are you?” the thug-in-chief demanded.
“There’s a zero percent chance I’m going to tell you,” the scout mocked. “Now get going before I fry you on the street like an egg.”
“You don’t know what you’re…” one of them started. Bauf! He fired another round at their feet. Tiny fireballs hopped around their shoes, making them dance. The scout popped the gun open, ejected the spent shells, and loaded another pair.
“Let’s go,” one of them offered. He didn’t wait for a reply before running.
“What about Nimble?”
“Leave him. He writes for the weekly; he’s not going anywhere.” The two other thugs took off after the first, with the one who’d cut himself limping as fast as he could. The scout approached their victim and helped him out of the puddle. They were careful to step over the spots the scout had shot, as the stone was still red hot and smoking.
The scout examined the man in the moonlight. They were about the same age, but the other man seemed much closer to falling apart. His frame was thin and rickety, like an oxidized weather vane ready to snap off the roof. He had light skin, large blue eyes, thick, curly, gray eyebrows, and the awkward smile of someone preparing to have their photo taken. He wore a long blue coat and a red bow tie that was now askew thanks to his encounter with the thugs.
“My name’s Bill Nimble,” he offered. He held a trembling hand out. The scout shook it.
“Wallace Dancing Rocks,” he reciprocated. “What was that all about?”
“Ah well,” Bill started. He straightened his tie. “I’m a meteorologist. I make my living doing weather predictions for some local papers. I’ve got a model you see, something of my own design. It’s predictive. I measure the light coming in through the holes in the firmament every day and track any patterns. That corresponds to the amount of caloric in the winds in the coming days and lets you predict the sky’s near future. To a certain degree.”
“And they wanted the degree to be a little more certain?”
“I’m afraid so. I do get myself in hot water every now and again. Every time it rains somebody thinks it’s my fault. This time one of the men who helped build all the temporary structures for the fair came to me and asked what the weather would be like. Apparently he thinks I owe him money now.”
“You should be safe for the night at least,” Wallace said.
“Yes, I forgot to thank you for intervening. Those were unusual bullets.”
“Something of my own design,” Wallace mimicked. He smiled. “They’re phlogiston shells. I find fire scares things off better than just a bang.”
“You made those?” Bill asked giddily. “Are you a man of science as well?”
“I’m a geo-engineer. I mostly integrate phlogiston into machinery.”
“That’s wonderful! Now I can repay you! Tell me you’ll still be in the city in two days. If you are, I can get you a membership to the Second York Academy of Sciences.”
“I wasn’t planning on staying,” he said. He pictured people exploding in the streets, each sounding like the Vanian and releasing the same puff of smoke. Kpof! “Besides, I’m already a member of the N.T.A. Academy.”
Wallace started walking back to the wagon, but Bill followed. He talked about the particular benefits of Two York’s Academy: specialist news magazines, special privileges with the technology at each year’s World’s Fair, and rubbing elbows with geniuses and visionaries from every field. He mentioned they were having their biggest symposium of the year in two days. There would be presentations of new sciences, votes on new policies, new agreements with lawmakers regarding the very progress of their society, and the induction of new members. Bill followed Wallace into the wagon. The weatherman was starting to bug him, so he handed him some jerky and a bottle of Black Adder snake oil and licorice soda to quiet him for a few minutes.
“You wouldn’t happen to have the cherry kind would you? The black is a bit bitter for me.” Bill asked politely. Wallace took the black bottle for himself and dug out a red one. He brought out a bottle opener and popped the tops off. They both took hearty swigs and chewed on the jerky. Wallace stared at the spiraling black snake on the bottle. Special privileges with fair technology huh? Maybe I could make use of that.
Wallace announced that he was warming up to the idea, which made Bill ecstatic. They discussed their work into the wee hours of the morning. Bill talked about his childhood and how he’d decided reading the sky was his passion. When he was young he hadn’t yet grasped that the sun was not an object; it was merely a hole in the firmament from which the endless light and caloric of the luminiferous aether could pour in. The stars were just pinpricks but the sun and moon were wide punctures whose influence powered the entire disc of the Earth. The prevailing theory was that much of Earth’s mass had been added through the sun hole. After that, the disc solidified and life eventually formed.
At some point another meteor from the aether punched through the firmament, struck down the mighty dinosaurs, and left the moon behind as a reminder. A thin skin of firmament had grown back over it, making its light far paler and dimmer than the sun’s. As for the shift between night and day, it was still a mystery. Some thought there had to be a great dark object rotating around the Earth. Hopes of sending men in protective suits out through the holes were still decades away. No structure was even close to tall enough.
To Bill there was nothing more inspiring than staring at the holes and forming his models. When he was right, people asked him to sign the newspaper when they spotted him on the street. When he was wrong his face lined the city’s bird cages.
Wallace did more showing than telling. He’d built his wagon himself, so he pointed out every quirk of the machine. He led Bill to the front seats and lifted the engine panel. He pulled on a long dark glove, to avoid burning his fingers, and pulled a small handle under the panel. Out came a long block of phlogiston, the current fuel reserve for the wagon. The stone was gray but loaded with glowing crimson veins. The heat it gave off quickly dried Bill’s pant legs. Wallace explained the deposition process. Under just the right conditions, high pressure, dry air, and compatible sediment, caloric could be compressed into deposits of ore and transform into phlogiston.
“What a wonder. Both of us studying opposite aspects of the same fundamental material and changing the world in very different ways,” Bill stated. Wallace still didn’t know if Bill’s work was entirely valid, but he nodded along anyway. Then he pulled out a can of industrial snake oil, lubricated the block of phlogiston, and placed it back in the wagon’s engine. He drained the last syrupy bit of soda from his bottle. He pondered telling Bill about the Vanian and its fortune. The weatherman seemed gullible enough to believe it. What am I thinking? Wallace thought. I don’t believe it myself. Like Bill said, we’re men of science. For all I know there still might be a man squirreled away in there behind that plate. Chewing on a box of crackers and peeing in a jug. Give me something I can test and then we’ll talk about plagues.
“So I heard you’re having an outbreak of SHC,” he eventually mentioned to Bill. The weatherman choked on his last sip of soda and wiped a red streak of it from his lips.
“Now that you mention it… that is expected to be the main topic at the symposium.”
“It must be serious then.”
“I’m afraid so. I haven’t seen any of it firsthand, but it’s getting so there’s a case in the paper every week. If the obituaries grow much more I might have to shrink my forecasts to make room.”
“Do you have any idea what’s causing it?”
“I’m no doctor. I have a friend, a lovely young woman, who’s a talented microscopist. I’ll introduce you at the symposium. She should be able to tell us something about the animalcules that cause such things.”
“Are you worried at all?” Wallace asked. Bill’s face became solemn for the first time that night.
“That I might suddenly feel hot under the collar? It has been gnawing on me. It’s hard to be objective about it, especially since it’s such a horrific way to go. I can imagine everyone else staring at me, feeling the heat my body is giving off. Maybe the last thing I would see would be their shocked and disgusted faces. There’s something almost… embarrassing? I don’t know if that’s the right word. I just have this thought that the last emotion one might feel when they realize they have the disease is shame. I don’t know why. There isn’t anything inherently shameful about your body failing to regulate caloric.”
“Do they know how it’s being transmitted?”
“No. Again, we’ll take action collectively at the symposium. It’s another reason you should come. We may need all the help we can get.”
“I’ll see you there my friend,” Wallace said warmly and patted Bill on the back. He read the weatherman’s expression and offered to drive him home, just in case the thugs were still roaming about. He accepted and thanked Wallace profusely. The wagon rattled its way down the wet streets, lit by the pinpricks in the sky.
On the morning of the symposium Wallace waited outside the main building for Bill’s arrival. The Academy of Sciences shared several buildings with a Two York university, so they would be enjoying the day and its presentations inside a large lecture hall. Wallace had never been a college man; the N.T.A. had a much larger focus on trade schools. He wasn’t used to seeing architects, machinists, and mathematicians mingling so readily with poets and playwrights who’d never had to wash off a hard day’s elbow grease.
He found a small drink and medicine stand run by an elderly Chinese man and ordered a coffee. He eyed the tiny bottles of herbs and snake oils behind the man and picked out a bottle of rattler oil.
“Excellent for the joints,” the Chinese man said as he poured the small bottle into the coffee and stirred them together. Wallace paid him and sipped at the hot drink. He bought a newspaper from a passing boy and read Bill’s forecast for the day. Partly cloudy with a small chance of showers. Wallace looked up. While he examined the clouds and let his mind meander with them, Bill and a young woman approached him. Bill cleared his throat, but Wallace didn’t notice. He tried again. Only the Chinese man noticed, so Bill had to politely wave him away when he asked what Bill wanted. The young woman rolled her eyes and took it upon herself to tap Wallace on the shoulder.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said as he noticed them. “It’s good to see you again Bill.” They shook hands. “And who is this?” he asked as he eyed the woman. She looked to be in her mid-twenties and also of Chinese descent. Her hair was dark and short and it bounced around her ears in tight curls whenever she turned her head. She had tiny shadowy dimples in the corners of her eyes that gave the rest of her face a mischievous air. She wore a red and white button-down coat with a silver pin on the breast. Wallace noticed Bill wore the same pin. He’d exchanged his blue coat for a gray vest and his red bow tie for a slightly larger and slightly darker red bow tie.
“I’m Rosamin Bluff-Polk,” the woman said as she held out her hand. Wallace shook it.
“Wallace Dancing Rocks. Bluff-Polk huh? I take it your family anglicized their names.”
“Ages ago,” she confirmed. “I hate to admit I’ve never even been to China.” The Chinese vendor tut-tutted lightheartedly from behind his counter and pretended to go back to stirring drinks when she leered at him with a sly smile. “What about you? Wallace isn’t a very traditional Natural American name.”
“My mother was Canadian.”
“Wallace, she’s the microscopist I was telling you about,” Bill said excitedly, eager to steer the conversation away from heritage. He wasn’t embarrassed by his milquetoast background; he simply thought discussing their sciences was far more interesting. As far as he was concerned anyone could be, but they had learned how to discover.
“Bill tells me you could shed some light on the SHC,” Wallace said.
“The specific animalcule has actually been known for some time,” she said with a nod. “It’s a bacterium that’s quite at home in pockets of warm swamp gas. It and its offspring store caloric to increase metabolic activity. Unfortunately for us, the warm moist interior of our lungs acts much like one of those pockets. Once they settle in, the caloric starts to concentrate in various tissues, sometimes asymptomatically, until the levels become unmanageable.”
“Why has it become such a problem now?” Wallace asked.
“It could be any number of reasons,” she explained. “Diseases have come and gone since the dawn of life. Plagues are usually overcome when a population makes a Lamarckian shift away from the feature that made them vulnerable in the first place. The animalcules that cause such plagues do the same in their efforts to infect and reproduce.”
“Are you saying the city will shrug this off like a cold?”
“Possibly, but I wouldn’t want to create false hope. Sometimes the disease wins. I plan on studying this myself extensively, once the new incentives are announced today. After that, people will be sharing their findings like mad in the hopes of collaborating and splitting the government grants.”
“And the recognition,” Bill said. He held up his hands in a circle over his chest, miming the shape of a medal. Rosamin averted her eyes. Bill noticed. “Oh, I’m sorry Rosamin. I forgot.”
“Is something the matter?” Wallace asked.
“Yes,” she said plainly. “Every year the symposium awards a medal to the most significant advancements in each field. I should be receiving one.”
“But you aren’t?”
“No, I was not nominated. I conceived of the device, designed it, and built the first prototype. For reasons unknown, the two men in the project with me who designed smaller and less integral parts of the process have been nominated.” Wallace and Bill shuffled their feet. The unknown reasons were known to them all. Women of science made up half of most Academies, but took home only a fifth of the prizes. The vendor scowled and swore on her behalf; she flashed him an appreciative smile. “When I join that crowd today I’ll be expected to applaud when those two accept. People will think it rude when I don’t congratulate them while they slit the throat of my child on stage.” Bill coughed at her colorful language.
“What is the device?” Wallace asked.
“I called it the dwindling manipulator. It’s used in conjunction with a microscope to perform surgical acts on animalcules invisible to the naked eye.”
“At least the progress is yours. Innovation without a spotlight is still innovation,” Wallace reasoned. As a man under contract, his company had taken credit for much of his work with machinery. The difference was that he was compensated quite a bit when the company’s name was written over his. Rosamin looked like she had a counterargument, but the conversation was derailed by a tall shadow passing over them. At first, Wallace couldn’t make out the details of it against the sun and thoughts perhaps it was the chance of showers Bill had mentioned. The towering fuzzy blur spoke, in an older female voice no less.
“How are we this morning?” the voice asked.
“Janet! I didn’t think you were going to make it this year,” Rosamin said giddily. As Wallace’s eyes adjusted he saw the shape split in two. The taller shape leaned over and gently set down the woman it carried in its arms like a bride.
“My legs are giving me more trouble all the time,” Janet said, “but I have Tycho here. He’s kind enough to carry me when I need it.” She looked to be in her mid-sixties, with a braided gray ponytail that hung over one shoulder and nearly reached her waist. She looked comfortable in her brown and green dress, like a seedpod about to unfold and release wispy seeds onto the wind. She steadied herself with a wooden walking stick that had the head of a chimpanzee carved into its handle.
Wallace’s eyes quickly moved to the being Janet called Tycho. It towered over them, some seven feet high. The creature had a broad chest where its rusty orange fur was thinnest, bulky shoulders, crypt-gray hands the size of baked stadium pretzels, and a head with expressive ochre eyes and big drooping nostrils. It carried a large hiking pack on its shoulders and wore a belt loaded with metal tools and buttoned pouches.
Wallace had seen such an ape before, but never this close. His people were the Natural Americans, but those creatures were the first. In the U.C.A, their name was a corruption of a Natural American word: sasquatch. Though their intellect did not match humans, they were widely recognized as the smartest of all the animals. They lacked the sloping forehead and brutish stance of gorillas, instead preferring bipedal motion. Wallace sometimes spotted small family units in the forests near his home, but their shyness was legendary. If they knew you were looking they would, more like rabbits than towering monsters, flee into the underbrush.
“Is that… is that a trained sasquatch?” Wallace asked Janet.
“Yes he is,” she confirmed. She walked over to the vendor, who also couldn’t help but stare at the beast, and asked for a bar of chocolate with peanuts. She paid for the wrapped sweet and handed it to the sasquatch. Wallace watched as the great ape carefully but comically unwrapped the chocolate bar and took a bite. “His name is Tycho,” she continued while the ape ate. “Chocolate with peanuts is his absolute favorite. Janet Goodmoss,” she held out her hand to Wallace. They shook.
“Wallace Dancing Rocks. How did you manage to tame him?” Wallace chose his words delicately. It was the second time that week where he wasn’t sure how much agency he should assign an entity. He was a little more comfortable with the sasquatch than the Vanian. If they had nothing else in common at least the apes both had hair on their chests.
“Janet’s a primatologist,” Bill offered. He hugged the woman whose virtues he was about to extol. “She has a facility down in Carolina, practically a zoo. She keeps exotic apes and monkeys and researches their social lives. She’s done amazing things: integrated different species into single families, taught them sign language, even gotten herself accepted into their troops and crowned leader.”
“Crowned isn’t the right word,” she said. “Their relationships are based on respect.”
“How did you deal with the shyness?” Wallace asked. He noticed the silver pin on Janet’s breast and started to feel like the odd man out. He entertained the foolish thought of pulling his autowagon on a leash behind him just so he would have something to show off.
“It’s true that their natural culture is very reclusive. Tycho was found injured as an infant. At first they tried to integrate him into a skunk ape family in a Florida zoo. I could’ve told them that was a terrible idea; the skunk apes may be their closest relatives but they’re far more violent. They beat Tycho to within an inch of his life. After that he was sent to me to recuperate. When I got him he was only three feet tall and barely knew how to walk upright yet. I integrated him into a family of gibbons, the most compassionate apes I’ve ever known. Good folks, every last one of them. Once he came out of his shell I started giving him private lessons.”
“So you’ve taught him sign language?” Wallace asked.
“I have. His vocabulary holds thousands of words. I daresay it’s larger than that of some Two Yorkers.” Tycho licked the last of the chocolate off his candy wrapper with a long pink tongue. He strolled over to a waste bin, his great padded feet quieting his bowlegged gait, and gently dropped the wrapper in.
“Will he be allowed to join us in the symposium?” Bill asked. He waved at the ape, who happily waved back.
“I wouldn’t be able to present his language abilities otherwise,” Janet confirmed.
“At least one of us will be on that stage today,” Rosamin said.
“I heard,” Janet said disapprovingly. “With that attitude, maybe they’re giving the medal to Tycho instead of me. He’s no stranger to chest beating.”
“Should I even be joining?” Wallace asked. “It seems I would tip the scales even further against you ladies.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Janet said. “As long as you know how to give credit where credit is due, we’ll be fast friends.”
The group of five slowly made their way into the lecture hall. A few squeaky biologists-in-training caught them and asked for Tycho’s autograph. Wallace grimaced when he noticed the ape’s handwriting was steadier than his own. After that the ladies split off to save some seats while Bill took Wallace to become a registered member of the Academy.
As luck would have it, Wallace traveled with a number of official certificates for his business work, so he was able to present them as evidence of his scientific rigor. He read through the membership agreement, gave them his mailing address in the N.T.A, signed his name in triplicate, each time trying to best Tycho’s signature, and received his silver pin.
From there Bill dragged him into the main chamber where they found their seats, in one of the middle rows, next to Rosamin and Janet. Tycho, being a little too large for the chairs, stood against the back wall quietly. Janet turned around and signed something to him; he responded with a thumbs-up and then crossed his lengthy arms.
An older man with thinning brown hair in an exceptionally well-tailored brown suit presented himself before the crowd. A technician wheeled a podium-shaped wood and brass device in front of him that was connected to two larger cabinets on either side of the platform by thick black cables. The technician quickly flipped a few switches, oiled a receiving disc on the top of the device, wiped it clean with a rag, and then raised the disc so it was closer to the presenter’s face.
“Greetings,” the man said into the disc. His voice was carried to the cabinets, which magnified it and filled all the empty spots from the stretching of the sounds with a sort of electric gravel. “I am Chairman Strom Dilcourt. Welcome to the fifty-eighth annual symposium of the sciences for the Two York Academy. I’m delighted to see you all here today and to speak to you with the help of this magnophone, lent to us by our whimsical neighbor: the World’s Fair.” He tapped the receiving disc and the sound popped loudly across the room. “Sorry. Every year I find new ways to look like a fool up here.” The crowd laughed lightly. Rosamin leaned across Bill to speak to Wallace.
“He’s the guy who stands between us and the grants,” she whispered plainly in his ear.
“Is he a decent sort?” Wallace whispered back.
“It doesn’t matter. It helps us to act like he is.”
“I won’t hold up the proceedings any longer,” Strom continued. “You know that I’m the least incredible thing that will grace this platform today. Let me introduce Lars Camden of the Rhode Island Snake Oil Institute.”
So began a lengthy series of miniature lectures and presentations. The show started with the various snake oil chemists and nutritionists as it usually did; no one was surprised anymore that yet another purpose had been found for the miracle compound of the age. Every year people presented it as some new sort of cure, lubricant, skin treatment, fertilizer, or aphrodisiac. Every year the number of snake farms in the U.C.A grew. This year’s serpentine highlight was an egg-eater oil sealant that was quickly improving the structural soundness of vacuum chambers.
After the oil presenters slithered away to enthusiastic applause, Janet and Tycho took the platform. A chalkboard was wheeled out. Tycho wrote out the alphabet for both English and Latin. Janet asked him some questions and he wrote simple answers of two to five words that wowed the crowd. Then she allowed the audience to ask Tycho questions.
“What do you think of Two York?” a young woman near the front asked. Tycho looked to Janet.
“This city,” she said and signed to clarify. The ape nodded and turned to the chalkboard. He carefully erased the alphabets and picked up the piece of chalk between the knuckles of his middle and ring finger. Squeenk squee squeen, the chalk squealed across the board.
“Tycho is used to the more temperate forests of Carolina,” Janet qualified while the audience snickered.
“Do you know what science is?” the stern bald Dean of the university asked. Squik squee squeeeenk squik.
smart guesses find truth
Wallace couldn’t help but compare the session to his interview with the Vanian. The ape was much more candid, which made him briefly wish he’d become a zoologist instead. When he was young machines were much simpler; you’d pour coal or phlogiston in one end, see the steam rise, and see the machine move from one end of a track to the other. Now there was the specter of slavery over the whole endeavor. Was the steam just the machine’s growing resentment?
“What else is important about science?” the Dean questioned further. He wanted to know if the ape could grasp a philosophical underpinning less clean than simplistic ‘truth’. Squeenkee squik squee.
The audience erupted into laughter. Tycho, aware at least of the nature of the response, clapped his hands and funneled his lips.
“That is his laughter,” Janet explained. “We must remember that the animal kingdom does not share the same set of facial expressions for their emotions that humans do. If one seems to smile at you that is actually a sign of aggression.” After that the questions devolved into a simple personality profile. Tycho’s favorite food? Chocolate with peanuts. Tycho’s favorite game? Catch. Tycho’s favorite season? Spring. When their time was up Tycho politely bowed to the audience, cleaned off the chalkboard, and returned to his stalwart position against the back of the hall.
When Strom returned to the magnophone he looked a tad nervous. He glanced off the platform repeatedly as if to check the next presenter hadn’t ripped off his clothes in preparation for streaking across the stage.
“The next… specialist, who will join us momentarily, is new to our organization this year. He’s built quite the reputation as a man not afraid to take the kinds of risks that defined the founding members of our academy. He is an explorer, but not like those who hacked their way through the jungles of darkest Africa or sailed from the Open Polar Sea to the edges of Magellanica. He is an explorer of the mind. He believes science is in desperate need of a personal emotional touch if it is to connect with the masses beyond the borders of an annual fair that dilutes the gravity of its exhibits with gallons of frying oil. I urge you to keep an open mind as we hear from Dr. Simon Nikolaus Nielson.”
Whispers grew and curled out of many mouths like kudzu. The air became tense and slightly hostile. Wallace heard the words unprofessional and scoundrel wriggle by more than once.
“Who is this man?” he asked Bill, but it was once again Rosamin, leaning over the passive meteorologist, who spoke.
“Simon’s a private doctor of sorts, for the rich and famous. He’s a mentalist. Promotes hypnosis as superior to chemical sedatives and anesthetics.”
“What’s so scandalous about that?”
“It’s not the technique so much as the man. He’s at far more parties than lectures if you know what I mean. He’s on everyone’s guest list as a man of ill repute.”
The specialist in question walked out onto the platform confidently. He wore the attire of an armchair phrenologist rather than a doctor or professor: maroon vest, high-collared soft-blue shirt, tight pants, and shoes shinier than the fruit that tempted Eve. He excused Dilcourt and grasped the sides of the magnophone like a basin he was about to wash his face in, giving everyone a good long look at his visage: boyish curly hair, a stare that you felt like a pinch on the behind, and full, pouting, feminine lips. It was not what people expected from either a thirty-three year old or someone who had graduated from a medical college at the top of their class.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the academy,” he started, voice like velvety icing. “I’ve never before graced this stage because my techniques were in development. Now, they’re perfect. I need to spread the seed to the wind. I need to change your minds. I can only do that… by making a connection.” He held out his hand and looked to the side of the platform. A young woman with a dark complexion came to his side. She wore a simple white gown with clasps so it could open from the front or back: the dress of hospital patients. She stood next to Simon, who surprised everyone by wrapping one arm around her waist and holding her close. She nervously put one hand on his chest and averted her eyes from the crowd.
“This is Charlotte,” Simon told the audience. “She’s a lovely girl with her entire life ahead of her, but she has a problem. There is something inside her that is killing her. It stabs her with a dagger of pain in the night and pulls her from dreams sweet as custard. It is her vermiform appendix. She does not enjoy the indignity of having this organ, blatantly called vermiform, blatantly telling her she has a deadly vermin inside her body, determining her fate. Do you Charlotte?” The woman nodded, but still did not look at the audience.
A surgical team moved onto the platform behind Simon, bringing a wheeled operating table with them. They began to set up their chromium-steel instruments: their cutters, grabbers, movers, and clippers. They donned cleanliness masks and gloves. One of the nurses separated Charlotte from Simon and took the girl over to the table. She stretched out on it and the surgeon opened her gown enough to reveal her vulnerable side. The inflammation from the appendicitis was obvious. The surgeon picked up a scalpel and took a step toward Charlotte. Simon threw up his hand.
“Stop!” he cried dramatically. The surgeon obeyed, but it was obvious, even through his mask, he didn’t enjoy playing along with the show. “Normally before a procedure like this, the doctor would administer gaseous or liquid agents to numb the area or put the patient to sleep. These methods are risky. Dosage is never precise in something so varied as a human being. It doesn’t account for the fluttering of their heart, the volume of the ego, or the weight of the soul. My technique does. I will use hypnosis to put Charlotte into a mental state that is immune to pain. The doctors will then be allowed to proceed.”
He walked back to the table and sat on its edge. He stroked Charlotte’s arm and then her cheek. Then he removed the necklace he wore: a blue glass tear catcher on a piece of black twine. There were a few drops of clear liquid inside. He held it up to the audience.
“In order to calm her mind, I must understand it. I don’t mean measuring her phrenological bumps. I mean understanding. Initially I was going to do this with a volunteer from the hospital, but I found out a day and a half ago that Charlotte, an acquaintance of mine, was ill. The timing was perfect. I asked her to delay her treatment for a short while so I could show you all. The closer the connection, the greater my hypnotic power. I spent the night with her last night. I memorized her. She is in my hands.”
“What does he mean he ‘spent the night’?” Bill asked in a whisper.
“I bet it’s exactly what it sounds like,” Rosamin said.
“The minds of men and women respond to different hypnotic stimuli,” Nielson continued. “This has to do with the primordial state of the mind in the mother’s womb during the development of the gender. As I’m sure you all know, temperature is the determining factor of sex. When a mother’s caloric is in balance she produces a boy. When it’s low she produces a girl. Sorry ladies, it seems you’re a touch undercooked.” Some of the crowd giggled at the old joke. Rosamin cleared her throat.
“Nobody ever suggests that men are just burnt,” she blurted out to the crowd. Even fewer voices giggled.
“Some would describe the heat of our passion that way,” Simon recovered. He stared at Rosamin, who stared back unflinchingly. Simon smiled. “While men need to be hypnotized from a position of dominance or authority, women respond to empathy and openness. I will now hypnotize Charlotte by sharing a piece of myself with her.” He held the tear catcher by the end of its string and moved it in front of Charlotte’s face. He started it swinging rhythmically. “These are the tears I cried for my lost love. Simon says follow them Charlotte. Follow them with your eyes. See into them. Feel the calm I felt once these were cleansed from my eyes. Simon says listen to their story Charlotte.”
The girl’s eyes followed the bottle back and forth. Her blinking became heavy. Everyone quieted until the greatest sound was the tiny popping of dust landing on the magnophone. Nielson recited a poem.
“Linette, the name I grew to love in spring,
O’er times we spent aclimb in trees of gold
We plucked the fruit for seed, not sweet drinking,
Virginia dirt imbibed it, dared to hold
Our branch upshot in just a monthly ring,
You claimed the branch, greed inked along heart’s fold
Refusal I sent t’wards thee, light as grain
Yet stone did strike and turn Linette to rain.”
“Is he saying she killed herself when he turned her down? By jumping out of a tree?” Rosamin whispered through a disgusted scowl.
“If he’s talking about the golden maple, they don’t even grow in Virginia,” Janet whispered to the other three.
“It’s just a minor detail,” Bill excused while he wiped a tear off on his collar. “Look, she’s still.” They all looked to Charlotte. Her eyes were only a quarter open. She wore a faint smile. Simon placed his necklace back around his neck and stood from the operating table.
“You may proceed,” he told the surgeon. The team closed in. Simon paced around the table with his head down while they worked, mimicking a father expecting the birth of his child. They cut into Charlotte’s side. Blood pooled beneath her and her expression stayed the same. Over the next while, the long strip of flesh was removed and Charlotte was promptly stitched back up. She wasn’t disturbed in the least.
“The connection I forged with her gave her comfort,” Simon declared. “She wouldn’t have trusted her life to me otherwise. She needed to see these tears,” he tapped his necklace, “to know I could understand the pain she was about to encounter. In a way, my lost love Linette, who took her own life when I selfishly rebuked her advances in the spring of 1896, who fueled these tears, saved Charlotte’s life today. I’m overjoyed to bring love into the sciences as I can’t imagine any life without it. Thank you.” The crowd applauded, more so than for any other presentation. They stood, all except Rosamin and Janet.
“He’s overjoyed by a woman’s suicide? This blowhard should be off talking to a skull in Hamlet,” she said to herself under the thunderous praise. It seemed most of the academy had been instantly convinced of Nielson’s import. He drank in the praise, lingering on the platform longer than he needed to. His feet did not move until the final clap had passed. His actual exit was awkward and narrated only by the squeaky wheel on Charlotte’s operating table as they rolled her away.
“Wasn’t that incredible?” Strom said when he returned to the magnophone. He made a quick speech to transition the symposium into the awards section. Those receiving medals that year were to offer some data or a demonstration before Dilcourt would place the award over their chest. A medicinal medal for a snake oil hair-regrowth tonic. An alchemy medal for a process that transformed gold into the far more valuable pyrite. A zoology medal for the recuperation of the nearly-extinct Jersey devil. A physics medal for the plum pudding model of the atom. Then came the demonstration for the engineering medal. Dilcourt introduced two men: a Professor Hatson and a Professor Colrick. Both middle-aged men approached the platform; Hatson carried a complex metal device in his arms.
“That’s them,” Rosamin hissed to Wallace. “That’s my dwindling manipulator.” She stared towards the platform, leaning out of her seat to get a better look. “I don’t believe it!” Her voice strained to contain itself to a whisper. “It’s literally my device. That’s the prototype I built with my own two hands! They didn’t even bother to construct a second one!”
“This is the dwindling manipulator,” Colrick told the audience while Hatson set it up. He locked the frame of the device into a much larger metal base that had been wheeled out for their presentation. The base chugged to life as an electrical cable was attached. Both men stood to one side of the base so a large lensed bulb could project an image onto the chalkboard behind them.
The manipulator was half microscope, so what the audience saw on the back wall was a bright magnified projection of the items on the scope’s slide. There was a row of animalcules of varying shape, color, and size. They were quite dead, preserved by a greenish chemical skin.
“The manipulator operates on the principle of limited reduction,” Colrick continued. “Before, we could only take the first step in reduction: a doll maker crafting palm-sized beds and armoires. Now imagine he wanted to make dolls for his dolls. Then dolls for his dolls for his dolls, all living in a house the size of a mouse’s eye. Such a feat cannot be performed by what becomes a gigantic clumsy pair of human hands. The solution is deceptively simple. Smaller hands.” Hatson pulled the microscope back so another slide could be placed on the projector. The new image was an engineering diagram showing a pair of hands manipulating ten small levers that were connected to a smaller pair of mechanical hands. That pair of hands then manipulated another set of levers for a smaller set of hands. So on and so forth.
“You can use the extra precision of each level to construct the next set of hands,” Rosamin whispered to her three friends while Hatson said something similar. “Thanks to me we can now dissect animalcules the same way we would frogs or pig hearts. It’ll be invaluable in the wave of SHC research that’s going to start the second this show’s over.”
“Do any of your peers know it should be you up there?” Wallace asked.
“Oh they know. Everybody here knows, but they’d never do anything about it. Just wait until I come back here with the cure. They won’t be able to ignore that.”
Hatson and Colrick returned the microscope to the projector and began the demonstration proper. Wallace, Bill, and Janet did their best to picture Rosamin stood behind those mechanical hands. The metal fingers clinked and clanked delicately as they moved the levers that moved the fingers that moved the levers… Wallace counted the levels, but couldn’t see anything smaller than the fourth set of hands. All that showed on the projector were the tips of microscopic tools: a scalpel and a hook not unlike the kind cruel dentists are so fond of. Hatson used them to slice open a bacterium from the Miasmata genus. He extracted organelle after organelle and offered cursory explanations of their known functions.
Rosamin went oddly quiet as they approached the end of the row of animalcules. Her friends thought she was stewing in rage, but she was actually transfixed by a tiny scratch mark visible on the microscope slide that was mostly covered by a network of waxy plant cells. Her hands tightened on her thighs and she practically held her breath as she waited for the right moment to speak up. First Hatson had to reach the plant cells, which were the finale of their little farce. Then he had to blather on about the source of the cells. She barely listened as he droned on about the medicinal properties of the silphium plant. Her feet tapped as he removed a chloroplast and poked at it. He’s like a palsied cow compared to me, she thought. I could separate them like newspaper sections without clipping a single flagellum. We’d all be on our way to lunch already. Finally the moment came. Colrick leaned down to switch the projector off.
“Wait!” Rosamin shouted and shot out of her seat. The entire Academy turned towards her. Even Tycho’s attention was drawn. He stopped peeling bits of wallpaper with his pinky, moved to cover the wall’s bald spot, and watched the girl’s outburst.
“Uhh… Yes, miss?” Hatson stuttered.
“No need to be strangers,” Rosamin chided.
“Do you have a question Miss Bluff-Polk? Colrick asked sternly.
“Oh yes. That’s a marvelous machine you have there gentleman. Quite revolutionary, but I must confess I can’t tell the function of that small mark in the glass. The one behind the silphium cells. It is difficult to see past the glare off your medals, but it is there.” She pointed and everyone looked. She wasn’t going to get a medal, but she was going to see a pair of faces wearing unrivaled embarrassment. Hatson, just as curious as anyone else, used the tiny hook to snare the edge of the plant cells and pull them away.
“No, don’t!” Colrick cried, reaching out to stop him, but it was too late. He bumped into the base, causing the light to flicker. When it returned the extent of the mark was fully revealed. It was a set of words that had been delicately scratched into the glass of the slide:
Property of Rosamin Bluff-Polk
“Tell me, what sort of animalcule is that?” Rosamin asked, beaming. Whispers and laughter zipped around the audience like fizzling smoky fireworks. Some even had the audacity to boo. Hatson and Colrick bowed to the audience, thanked Strom for the honor, and wheeled the manipulator away with their heads down. Their medals bobbed in the air like loose dog collars. Rosamin took her seat and received a proud pat on the shoulder from Janet and some light applause from the other members.
“How did you know they would use that slide?” Bill asked in a whisper quieter than all the others. He looked very uncomfortable just being near the epicenter of the drama.
“I didn’t,” Rosamin said. “I wrote that on all my slides to practice handwriting with the manipulator. I thought the men who code things in war time might be interested in writing so small the enemy couldn’t read it.”
“If I didn’t believe you before, I certainly do now,” Wallace said. “I’m also a lot closer to thinking you can cure SHC.”
“Speaking of,” Janet said and pointed to the stage. Strom returned to the magnophone, flanked by five sour-looking doctors.
“It is unfortunate that I must announce this,” he started, glossing over Rosamin’s defiance. “This year’s research initiative is a measure to prevent crisis rather than advance our lives. A disease faces our city and the surrounding regions. A disease that has made its way across the Misizibi and is finding a home in the lungs of our good citizens. I speak, of course, of the recent wave of volcanic palpitations. Our Academy has organized its resources, and these men and women,” he gestured to the doctors at his sides, “are from the various institutions that have taken it upon themselves to help us. Each one of them has multiple research grants available to aid those of you who wish to study the condition. It is my hope that, by next year’s symposium, the solution will be among us.”
“Are we sure the answer isn’t just snake oil? It seems to address everything else,” Bill suggested quietly.
“Snake oil only treats symptoms” Rosamin told him. “Maybe some serpentine solution can keep you feverish instead of aflame, but it won’t remove the animalcule responsible.”
“I guess that’s your job,” Janet said and patted Rosamin’s shoulder again. Rosamin gave her an affirming nod and turned to survey the grants being presented. The first grant’s the easy one, she thought. They’re desperate, so they’ll be handing them out like candy. I can get one even without that medal. The other grants… the ones when people aren’t running around on fire… they’re the ones I need. If I get that cure, my career is set. I’ll never have to beg for funds again. After that it won’t be a slide that says ‘property of Rosamin Bluff-Polk’; it’ll be a building. Won’t that be someth…
“Aurh! Ahh! Ahhhhgh!” Kafoosh! An angry plume of fire erupted in the audience. The acrid black smell of burning blood hit the people closest before the first scream was heard. Wallace could just make out a hand quaking against an armrest. Its owner’s chest and head were gone, engulfed in fire. The fleshy volcano around his collarbone swallowed up his undershirt and tie. His limbs continued to spasm, pulling the body off its seat and onto the floor.
Tycho scooped a surprised Janet into his arms. The ape barreled into the aisle and made a path through the crowd for the other three to follow. Bill and Rosamin did so hastily, but Wallace lingered. He was unable to tear his eyes from the man’s body. He’d seen war. Relations between the U.C.A and N.T.A had not always been so kind. He’d seen his fellows torched on pyres of their own belongings by Americans jealous of their land. Somehow, this was worse. They hadn’t been ambushed by the fire. The death was nothing to envy, but they had at least understood it. There was fire; they had seen it as it drew closer. Not this fire. It didn’t allow you to forget it. It could be there whenever it wanted. It could burn you and your spouse in bed. It could roast you at the dinner table in front of your children. It was in the back of everyone’s mind as a flickering crackling shadow.
“Wallace, come on,” Rosamin urged, pulling at his arm. He only turned when he saw the fire start to catch the other seats. He was one of the last out of the auditorium. Hundreds of academics rubbed elbows in a way they had not anticipated as they squeezed through doors and passages.
“Who was that?” Someone screamed at the ceiling.
“It was Jacob! It was Jacob Turner!” part of the crowd answered.
“He just went up! It was the palpitations!”
When the crowd broke out into the daylight they were further upset by the rowdy sounds of the fair nearby. They heard the squeal of the elevator breaks just a block away. Some of the Academy collapsed on the stone steps outside the building. A few clutched at their friends, but at least one clutched at his new medal. The girl from Simon’s demonstration, Charlotte, was wheeled out and carried down the stairs. The hurried extraction had woken her from her hypnosis and she was writhing and crying.
“Where’s Simon?” she asked. The hypnotist was quite a distance away, near the Chinese vendor’s cart. He recovered from the panic a little faster than was healthy, pulled out his wallet, and slammed several bills onto the vendor’s counter.
“Oil and salves for everyone!” he cried. “Come, my friends. Treat your burns and bruises.” A smaller crowd gathered around the cart and poured gratitude on Simon as the vendor handed out bottles of snake oil and horsehair application brushes.
“Did any of you know the man?” Wallace asked as Tycho escorted the four of them under one of the trees lining the lecture hall’s small lawn. The ape placed Janet in a sitting position on one of the lower branches.
“No,” Janet answered for the other three. “I believe he was an alchemist’s assistant.” Tycho pulled a glass bottle of water from his backpack and passed it around. Everyone took a gulp. Bill spilled it down his front and apologized for his shaking hands.
“That’s a smart disease,” Rosamin spat. “Striking at the heart of those most likely to cure it.”
“You don’t think…” Bill started, eyes bulging in terror.
“No of course not,” Rosamin calmed. “It’s no smarter than the common cold.”
“If this keeps up it’ll be called the common fire before autumn,” Janet sighed. Three red autowagons with silver bumpers rounded the nearest corner. A young boy was seated atop one, cranking a bigmouthed siren that overtook their conversation. Men in helmets and thick suits poured out and started attaching hoses to the one wagon hitched to a swollen metal water tank.
Rosamin spotted Hatson and Colrick catching their breath against one of the other trees. Neither of them carried her dwindling manipulator, which meant it had been left inside. There was no way of knowing if the fire would reach it before the fire brigade did without running back into the burning halls herself. While Rosamin had design documents for building new ones, the thought of the prototype blackening and warping infuriated her. She noticed Charlotte too, terror-filled eyes scanning the crowd for the hypnotist who was hidden by adoring fans.
Love in the sciences hmm? She thought. They don’t love animalcules and microscopes any more than Simon loves Charlotte. I’m the one risking everything. I’m the one with her heartstrings wrapped vulnerably around the apathetic machinery of progress. Hatson and Colrick won’t beat me to a cure. They won’t risk even approaching a sample slide of the malady. I will. I’m the real firefighter.
A Bunch of Lamarckey
Krik. Jay Mcmawkin stopped mid-chew. A drop of watermelon juice rolled down his chin. He grabbed the napkin from the table and delicately spat out the mouthful of pulped red melon. He picked out the source of the sound with two fingers and held it up to the window so he could see it better by the early morning light.
It had been only seven months since the 1903 World’s Fair ended, but the summer sun had come early this year. It wasn’t nine in the morning yet but Jay was already sweating. He looked at his wife Edie, who stood at the opposite end of the kitchen with both hands over her mouth. Her apron was a mess of stains and little burn marks, which reminded Jay how much she needed a new one. How much they needed a new everything.
“I’m so sorry,” she cried, tears welling up in her eyes. She walked over to the table, grabbed the other two triangles of watermelon from his plate, and searched them for seeds with a thin probing finger. “These are supposed to be seedless. The market has a guarantee! I have half a mind to go back there and get our money back.” Jay stood up from the table and wiped his hands on his pants. The other fresh fruits that were supposed to be his breakfast, the lovingly cut apple rocking chairs, the grapes on the vine, and the sugared grapefruit, were not dangerous but his appetite was spoiled. He started to leave the room, but Edie ran around the table and hugged him.
“I said I was sorry,” she blubbered. “It was an accident Jay.”
“I know that,” Jay said, deciding it was cruel not to hug her back. He put her at arm’s length after about ten seconds of the embrace. “It might not have been me though. What if Mary or Darby had that slice.” They pictured their two young daughters, both of whom were less likely to chew their food thoroughly while they laughed at each other’s jokes or fought over the sugar bowl. “Imagine how they’d feel waddling into school with a big ol’ melly hanging out in front of them. Those kids have to sit at special desks so it doesn’t get in the way.”
“I’ll be more careful,” Edie assured him as she wiped at her tears with a long apron string. “It’s just my nerves. I’m worried about the job. What if you can’t find it?”
“Your maiden name is Playborough isn’t it?” Jay asked.
“You know it is.”
“And you’re the daughter of an English woman and a Welsh salesman right?”
“Then you don’t have to worry. Half-Welsh isn’t Irish. Clark’ll have to give you the job.” He hugged her again.
Ten minutes later Jay was putting on a hat to keep the sun out of his eyes and opening the door to leave. He was off to the library to look for Edie’s genealogy records. Mr. Clark was a stick so deep in the mud that he’d taken root. The old fool had got it in his head, from the Two York society sections no doubt, that Irish folk worked only while you watched them and napped when you didn’t. It was something the papers had taken to calling a ‘breeding weakness’. Jay couldn’t hide his status as an Irishman any more than a cow could hide the milk leaking from it, but marriage didn’t make Edie Irish. He’d find those records and shove them in Clark’s face until he let Edie onto the toy-painting line with the rest of the working women and their nimble hands.
Jay wasn’t proud of Edie needing work, but his own carpentry business was in steady decline because of the rumors puffing their way over from England and France in polished steamboats. His father had dragged the whole family to the U.C.A to escape those sentiments, but now it seemed they would follow wherever they went. Jay had a thought about packing himself and his countrymen into a cannon and launching the whole of Ireland through the sun hole and into the firmament. Maybe it was endless out there. Maybe they could just outrun the lies.
We beat the queen ages ago, Jay mused, and now the top hat types are shipping them back over to teach them how to drink tea and avoid stepping in the muck… At least none of that Swift shit’s made it over. Jay stepped outside. The sounds of clopping hooves and sputtering engines washed over him. He smelled baked stone, newsprint, oil, and snake oil: the breath of the city. The sun seemed to drill through his hat and heat his skull. He walked down the steps onto the street and pointed himself in the direction of the library.
“Wait!” Edie cried from their doorstep. Jay turned. She flashed the toothy grin he couldn’t help falling for ten years ago. He remembered tickling her at night and coaxing the expression by hovering strawberries or chocolates in front of her mouth. He smiled back.
Edie blew him a magnificent kiss that pushed through the gritty city air towards him. She’d put so much effort into it that he could practically see it, a throbbing pinkish cloud of affection that wanted to nestle deep in his chest. He opened his mouth playfully, like a bigmouth bass gasping at a lake’s surface, and caught the kiss in his mouth. He swallowed it with an exaggerated gulp and mouthed I love you. Then he turned back towards the library. He touched at his throat a little. Suddenly it felt dry and scratchy. The kiss did seem to have a heavy heat to it as it sank down his windpipe. He coughed.
The genealogy section of the library proved to be more of a challenge than he’d originally thought. The human element of its subject matter added a certain biologically arcane quality to the classification. The books and documents seemed to wind and fold over each other more like mangrove roots than reference texts. His first real lead in ten minutes was a document that listed Edie’s father as a passenger on a ship that originated in Wales. That wouldn’t be enough. He’d need the family tree to guarantee her the job.
Jay scratched at his left forearm. He noticed he had a bit of a rash there. It’s probably all this dust. It’s not fair I have to wade through all this old paper just because people take Lamarck too seriously.
He was thinking about Lamarck’s theory of adaptive forces and attitudes: the central principle of which united the studies of disease, plants, and animals decades ago. It was uncertain for a while thanks to the competing theories of one Charles Darwin, but eventually scientific rigor demonstrated Lamarck’s accuracy. Since then scientists had all but proven that every creature on Earth was related to every other one through a common ancestor. Over millions, and perhaps billions, of years they had diversified by adaptive behaviors.
A common example that demonstrated the principle was the giraffe; it spent its life reaching and stretching its neck towards the highest branches of trees. This effort is recorded in the smallest parts of the animal and contributes to a slightly longer neck in its offspring. If you saw a giraffe a thousand generations ago, before the struggle for the treetops, you would’ve seen something much more like a horse or camel.
Everyone learned about it in school, even poor immigrants like Jay who had to leave academia behind early to find work. He had no problem with the facts; it was what the oppressors of Europe had done to them that didn’t sit right. They took the facts and stretched them out on the rack, tortured them until they’d say whatever they wanted. They saw one rotten poor Irishman and thought the family line was tainted. A drinker begets a harder drinker. A gambler begets a beggar begets a criminal. Jay knew it didn’t work that way though. No family went rotten in one generation, or even five.
What the upper crust chose to ignore was that any man or woman could overcome a slight adaptive disadvantage from their parents by force of will. He could undo or even surpass shortcomings with hard work and focus. His kids could easily wind up better than him if he tried. Plus it takes two people to make a child. That’s two waterfalls of different speed, size, and temperature flowing together. That decided far more than one parent’s lacking work ethic.
It’s a bunch of Lamarckey, Jay thought as he scratched his arm. The back of his hand was red now too. Lamarckey was their word for what they had to deal with. The so-called ‘breeding weaknesses’. Supposed inferiorities. The shifty dispositions of the Irish, Chinese, and African, reinforced and amplified by generations of leeching from England, Germany, France, and America. It didn’t take much time for the common word malarkey to get switched around as a joke. Then it stuck. The only thing you could say to a man who thought your parentage defined you.
Page one hundred and thirty-five of the Recent History of Prominent Welsh Families gave him what he needed. He folded part of the long book out so he could see the entire family tree illustration. It was complete with small photographs from immigration and birth records. He saw his wife’s smile as a white blur in her picture. You did it, the picture said. Take me to Clark. Make him see my big Welsh smile.
Jay scratched at his arm and felt something wet. He looked down and saw that he’d drawn blood. The fingers of the irritated hand were shaking. His nailbeds felt like he’d raked them through a patch of hot coals. He stood from the chair and dropped the book on the table. He looked around, but there was no one to help.
“Is there a doctor here?” Jay yelled in panic, not sure if his voice climbed over the lifeless shelves enough to reach the librarian. He started making his way to the front desk. A new searing pain shot up and down his arm, causing him to collapse against a bookcase. Field guides for birds and insects rained down on him. One of the books landed on his arm and started to smoke. He shoved it away and was horrified to see the paper inside curled and blackened.
It can’t be the palpitations, he thought as thick sweat rolled into his eyes. The perspiration did nothing to relieve the fire under his skin. It can’t be. The heat’s supposed to be in your chest. In the lungs, that’s what they said. Not in the arms. Stop it arm. The doctors said you can’t do this!
“Help!” he screamed, but none came. The blood on top of his arm bubbled and hissed. His nail beds blackened. Jay made a fist, which felt like squeezing a miniature sun. He cried out again. Tears joined the sweat. Edie can’t take care of the girls without me. I don’t need an arm, but I need to live. At least let her mourn something more than a pile of ashes. Jay used his right arm to lift himself to his feet. His mind was a burning halo, the eye of a red volcanic storm. He couldn’t think. The Irishman stumbled around, searching for the way out. His arm was just a plume of pain. It was nothing but the exhaust flames from his exploding heart.
His hand caught fire. The flames danced around and between his fingers, obscuring them. All the hair was friend instantly. His crimson flesh started to blacken and crack. Jay held the exploding appendage away from his face and tried to run from it. He slammed into a table full of books and fell over onto it. It was the table he’d just left. In his confusion he’d turned completely around. His good hand searched for something, anything. His fingers closed around an open book. He pulled it to his face and stared at his wife’s picture. This’ll be the last thing I see. Only a real smile would be better. I love you Edie. I love you.
Jay realized through the haze of his torture that his body might burn the genealogy records. Good. Up in smoke with all of them. We’re not trees. We’re not servants connected by strings to be hung over a mantle like paper dolls. Take all of this with me fire. Erase the histories. Make them find new reasons to hate us.
Yet he could not bring himself to fully give in. His life seemed to be ending, but Edie would go on. She probably still needed that job. Jay moaned and rolled himself off the table to spare the knowledge from his unmerciful fire. As he rolled across the hardwood, crihkik, his charred arm broke off at the elbow. The acrid smell of burning blood bloomed in the stale air. The skin that had connected it was now a pile of black powder settling around the scorched joint.
Jay lay on his back and held the stump up. A red flame still waved lazily back and forth at the end of it. Is that my spirit burning? Is that the real me venting out? He noticed the heat start to fade. I knew it wasn’t the palpitations. My lungs are fine. My arm killed me. It’s not the palpitations. Just anger. Just anger with nowhere to go. My poor arm couldn’t strangle any of those folks spouting that Lamarckey. So it blew its top.
Jay’s heart slowed. He tried to lift his head and make sure he hadn’t destroyed Edie’s records, but the effort proved too much. Darkness settled in around the dying flame. Jay Mcmawkin closed his eyes and sank into himself. It wasn’t until several hours later that a librarian crushed the remains of his arm under her unaware foot. For a moment she didn’t comprehend what she’d stepped in. She scraped black marks into the floor trying to clean her shoe. Then she gasped at the sight of five black fingers with ashen nails.
Continued in Part Two