A City’s Trance
Simon Nikolaus Nielson, who had grown fonder of all three of his names the more he saw them written in the papers, was not initially pleased to receive the invitation to the exclusive golfer’s club. He’d never cared for the sport because he’d never cared for places that banned women. How was anyone supposed to have any fun with scrawny boys chasing after their swings instead of a good woman? Even when Simon did share an intimate moment with men it was only with the slimmest palest men who reminded him of a childhood friend that had died of consumption.
He checked his silver pocket watch and wondered how many holes he’d be expected to play before he could slip out. He worried that a manageable nine, with one nonchalant comment, could turn into eighteen. He’d already cancelled three hypnosis sessions to make room for those who had invited him.
The last of those three was with a Swedish woman so beautiful that she looked like a permanent ice sculpture. She was so grateful for the sessions that her joy could only be expressed with raucous sexclamations. The couch in his office protested more and more every time, but Simon simply could not refuse her. It would be cruel of him to keep planting tiny clues in her trances and then deny her. He’d only planted seeds though. A zombie was no good as a lover.
Simon pulled down the golf shirt he hated himself for purchasing, adjusted the white golf cap he was going to give to a homeless man later, and tried to avoid scuffing his new shoes as he made his way to the equipment counter for a set of clubs. Before he could catch the attention of the man behind the counter, his host opened a door nearby and waved him in.
The back room was quite strange; originally an office, it still held a desk and a bookshelf, the floor was now also cluttered with thin green carpets and depressions in the floor: three holes to practice putting. The holes were decorated with miniatures of Two York’s tallest buildings, with the tallest just high enough to catch a man’s undercarriage if he wasn’t careful. The office was packed with four men, two of whom were putting. One stood up against the wall with a grimace; he seemed to be waiting for the other two putters to finish some wager so he could have a turn.
The fourth man, who was seated at the desk, was Strom Dilcourt. His usual professional attire was replaced by a silly golf shirt and a hat topped with two puffy balls that looked like a pair of white rabbits kissing.
“I thought the course would be bigger,” Simon joked, storing away his irritation to make a good impression. When the chairman of the academy invited you somewhere you not only attended, but offered to pay for him. Strom smiled and chuckled; he seemed more comfortable in the cramped office than he had on stage.
“I apologize for the pretense,” he told Simon. “I would have invited you to my regular office but this is not exactly regular business. It just so happens I also hold a seat on this club’s advisor committee. Please have a seat.” He gestured to a chair. Simon sat down and crossed one leg over the other so his foot wouldn’t be in the way of the putters. A ball rolled by his shoe, rolled along the edge of a hole, and popped back out.
“Ahh, it’s because the mentalist was moving,” the putter complained. “That one shouldn’t count.”
“Night, day, rain, shine, lightning… They all count,” the other competitor argued.
“I step very lightly,” Simon assured them.
“I’m counting on that,” Strom said as he drew the doctor’s attention back. “Some other members of the academy, along with myself and some people in the mayor’s office, think we should be the ones to provide the city with the solution to its palpitations problem.”
“Well that’s very noble chairman, but what does it have to do with me?” Simon asked.
“You’re a rising star Dr. Nielson! I thought I’d give you first crack at running the experiments. You certainly wowed the crowd last year.”
“I don’t understand. Everyone will be presenting their findings in a few weeks. How am I supposed to find the time to corral candidates and perform any kind of trial, let alone analyze the results? Why didn’t you come to me last year?”
“Our current course of action wasn’t really in the cards until recently,” Dilcourt grumbled. The man leaning on the wall snorted, but wouldn’t lock eyes with Simon.
“What course of action would that be?”
“The mayor and the other influential people in our circle have been trying to adopt certain aspects of European culture lately. We’ve been getting a lot of investment from England, France, and Spain. Investment that has greatly enriched the city. If this relationship is to continue, we need Two York to be hospitable to them. It needs to look like home.”
“I’m afraid I’m still not following you Chairman and I’m known as an excellent listener.”
“You’ve heard of the Modest Proposal they use in England?”
“Yes. Who hasn’t? They’re eating their poor. I don’t know if I’ll ever see a headline that tops that one.”
“Because of those events many of their poor have made their way to our fair city. The Irish problem has been getting worse. If you add to that the blacks, the Chinese, the spaghetti-twirlers… you wind up with one foul-tasting melting pot…and that pot has been getting too hot lately. It is our opinion that populations like the Irish are the vectors for the palpitations animalcule. It’s their weak constitution, the same thing that makes them lousy workers and prone to drunkenness.”
“I’m glad we added the I-talians,” one of the putters muttered. “Can’t stand those I-talians.”
“You want me to try and confirm your theory? Before the World’s Fair? That’s impossible,” Simon said.
“I don’t want you to try and confirm it; I want you to confirm it. That’s much quicker. We can get you all the documentation you need, but we would like you to make the presentation during the symposium. We want to put the investors at ease. They’re doing great things for this city.”
“Just so we’re clear Chairman. You want to try and buy the truth?”
“Our theory is accurate as far as we know. If someone else wants to disprove it they can go right ahead. There are plenty of Irish and Chinese cases of volcanic palpitations to choose from. Everyone knows the name of that Mcmawkin fellow already. He’s practically the face of the disease. We want you to be the face of the cure.”
“I won’t be party to anything as nefarious as rounding up entire neighborhoods!”
“Oh don’t be dramatic Dr. Nielson. We’re not suggesting that. We just want you to prove it to the public. The lawmakers will take it from there. We won’t ship them to the N.T.A. in boxcars or anything like that. People just need to be warned to keep their distance from the hotheads.”
“What would be my reward if I were to do this?”
“A medal at the symposium. Speaking engagements with hefty payments. Public funding for your clinic. Evenings with the mayor, senators, famous musicians, and stage actors…”
“It’s not an easy thing you’re asking,” Simon said. He stood up and slowly walked along the edge of one of the tiny putting holes. He rested a fingertip on each miniature building as he passed behind it. He lifted one foot and silently rested the tip of his shoe on top of one of the golf balls. The four other men in the room watched the ball intently. Nielson rolled the ball in front of the tiny university. “I’ll have to start from the symposium and help the message travel along the most effective route.” He rolled the ball to a building currently owned by a life insurance company. “After the scientists I’ll have to visit the insurance men. They need to know what a risk it would be to insure a man who was at high risk of exploding. Not only could they die at any moment, but any money in their wallet would burn with them!”
He wiggled the ball back and forth slowly. Their eyes followed: back and forth, back and forth, then in a small circle around the banks. “If the insurance men won’t take the risk, then why would the bankers? A man can’t repay his loans if he pops like a balloon.” He rolled the ball down the carpeted green main street. “That’s when it becomes common knowledge. That’s when it becomes accepted. Children start playing games where one of them is called ‘the red-haired volcano’. Wives gossip about the aggressive blushing in a local trollop’s cheeks; surely it must be the palpitations.”
He wiggled the ball again, even slower. Back and forth. To and fro. Around and around. The men watched. He rolled it under a miniature bridge and snagged it effortlessly on the other side. “Simon says the Irish will believe it too,” he boasted. “Hypnosis should be no different, even on this grander scale. I think I will do it Mr. Chairman, but only because I want to challenge myself. Only because I want to see if I can hypnotize the entire city.”
“What do you mean it should be no different?” the man leaning against the wall asked. He still didn’t look Nielson in the eye, but it was clear he expected an answer and would go to the trouble of separating his back from the wall to get it.
“What was that?” Nielson asked, thrown slightly off by the interruption.
“You said hypnosis wouldn’t be any different for a city than for a person. How exactly do you mean?”
“Ahh, I take it you missed my presentation last year… and all six stories on my technique in the health section of the Two York Times.”
“Yeah. I must of,” the man growled.
“I… I simply mean that the principal is the same. In order for someone to be hypnotized they must want it to work. They must have some sort of investment in the results of the process. The people of Two York will invest in me because they think their very lives are at stake. And because they already have a natural dislike of these people.”
“So you think you can make a convincing case for our theory?” Strom asked.
“Not only can I do that, I can do it so subtly that no soul will suspect me of lightly tapping my own truth out of the marble. Just as the three of you did not notice me hypnotizing your friend here.” Simon pointed to one of the men that had been putting. His stare was vacant, like a pale clamshell robbed of its pearl ages ago. A tiny rope of drool fell from his mouth and hit the green below.
“How… how on Earth did you do that?” Strom asked, his mouth threatening to hang as open as his mesmerized associate’s.
“With the conviction in my words,” Simon said, “and the hypnotic movements of the golf ball.” He lightly kicked the ball. It sailed into the hole. Ploonk.
“We were all watching that ball,” the other putter said. “How come I’m not drooling?”
“Remember what I said about being invested?” Simon asked. He smiled and tipped his soon-to-be discarded golf hat. “It was his ball.” With that he turned on his heels and marched out the office door. He couldn’t resist spicing the situation up some more, so he threw an order over his shoulder to the hypnotized man. “Simon says pretend you’re a game pheasant for a while.” The hypnotized man tucked his hands under his armpits and started flapping like a bird. He didn’t know what a game pheasant sounded like, so he made up a call.
“Buck buck Barooook! Buck bacuck Barooook!” He started smashing his nose against Dilcourt’s desk and knocking over stacks of papers. The man against the wall finally stood up. He bent the potbellied game pheasant over and held his face against the desk until he calmed down.
“Who wants the drumstick?” he joked grimly.
Outside the office the man behind the equipment counter stared at Simon while they both listened to the racket of a grown man pretending to be a bird and then being subdued. Simon just shrugged.
“You know these old boys and their traditions. He says it takes five strokes off his game!”
The Goodmoss estate loomed in the distance. Rosamin could just see its white dome roof rising above the trees. Trees she could not identify. Past the property line the plants started to get stranger. Some had leaves with an oriental curl. Others drooped as if an African sun beat down on them. Vines climbed everywhere, growing fast enough to wrap around fruits before they could even fall. The horses whinnied nervously as the carriage rattled down the dirt road, catching and tossing the occasional pebble against a tree trunk. Even the sound they made when they collided was foreign. The canopy rustled; the sounds followed the carriage.
“Don’t worry miss, that’s just some of the monkeys,” her driver calmed.
“I’m not worried,” she replied, “This is not my first visit to Janet’s personal jungle.”
“Folks around here were mighty upset with that woman when she shut down her family’s plantation. Put a lot of us out of work.”
“She never had an interest in sugarcane or tobacco. I guarantee you the research she has done here is worth more in knowledge than the labor was in crops.”
“Tell that to a harvester.” Her driver snorted and spat a massive glob of brown gunk into the dirt. “At first people thought she was training those monkeys to do the picking for her.”
“If anyone could do that it’s Janet.” As the conversation died Rosamin checked inside her leather case to make sure she hadn’t forgotten any of her research. The next symposium was fast approaching and no one had claimed victory over the palpitations yet. Rosamin had come close. So close in fact that she thought it was good enough to present. When she shared the news With Janet via telegraph the primatologist had insisted that she visit so they could pore over it before the event. Janet had won more than her fair share of medals. None of the male biologists had the ability to connect with animals like she did, so there was never anyone close enough to steal the credit. Rosamin had at one point considered becoming her assistant only to find Janet did not take assistants.
I just need her to tell me how she stays so calm, she thought. I can’t imagine accepting the award without parading in front of those fools and honking like a goose. I want my picture taken while it’s happening. I want to be on the front page of the Two York Times, face contorted mid-honk and medal bobbing up and down like a cowbell. She snapped the case shut. Thunk! A round greenish fruit struck the side of the carriage. Thunk! Thunk!
“Oh lovely, they’re in a throwing mood today,” the driver groaned. A fruit burst against the flank of one of the horses and the carriage sped up slightly. Another green ball came flying in but Rosamin caught it and hurled it back into the tree. A small black monkey with a white and yellow face tumbled out of the patch of leaves and hit the ground. It chattered furiously at Rosamin, who merely stuck her tongue out at it. “I see you speak their language,” the driver chuckled.
“It’s the same language we speak. They give you trouble and you give it right back. It’s the simplest form of communication there is.” The rest of the hidden apes ceased pelting the carriage.
“I’ll have to remember that for next time,” the driver said. They were not disturbed for the rest of the short ride. The driver pulled on the reins and brought the carriage to a stop well before they’d reached the house. “This is as close as I’m allowed. Frankly I wouldn’t want to get much closer. I’ve seen big things moving around those bushes.”
Rosamin grabbed her pack and her research case and disembarked. She thanked the driver and sent him back down the road. She lingered for a moment to listen for the sound of fruit hitting wood, but it did not come. I guess they’re not that restless after all. She found the monkeys’ attitude understandable, given how infrequently visitors to the estate actually entered the Goodmoss home. The path she’d used last time seemed to have grown over a little, but she pushed through the branches anyway. As long as it was discernable it was still a path; if it got too bad she could always bring out her emission goggles and blaze a new trail.
She crushed a thorny branch under her boots. Quick to seek revenge, a few deceptively leafy branches scratcher her with their hidden spines. Rosamin wondered why Janet kept herself so isolated. There were plenty of possible excuses, but they all seemed thin and moth-eaten compared to the obvious explanation that she preferred the other apes to her own species. As she got closer to the house she dove deeper into her memories, searching for a conversation where Janet seemed smitten with a man or inspired by a colleague. There wasn’t much to find. Janet had never wed and never had children, though she was a grandmother of sorts to several generations of exotic apes.
Those apes were normally much more curious. Las time she’d visited they’d been all over at this point, poking at her sides and trying to nibble on her hair. Yet she didn’t hear so much as a whisker twitching in the canopy or the bushes. Where are they? I remember a little one named Oatmeal. He tried to steal my hat. I thought we really had a connection.
“I thought of all the monkeys you’d come to see me Oatmeal,” she told the underbrush. There was no immediate response. Then a twig snapped behind her. Rosamin spun around. Nothing. She held her breath and eyed the jungle for a few seconds. Leaves fell, none heavy enough to snap a twig. She turned back to the scruffy trail and used her research case to push the rest of the thorns away. Eventually she stepped out into the clear yard in front of the house’s wide white stairs. Two tall wooden posts studded with boxes and arms stood on either side. Normally they were covered in frolicking monkeys, but this time there was just a solitary peach-colored dove.
A massive hairy paw snatched her research case out of her hands. Rosamin thought it was Tycho. She turned to tell him that she could carry it herself and was instead greeted by something more brutish than Janet’s sasquatch.
It circled around her, one set of knuckles sinking into the ground and the other waving her research case back and forth. Its fur was black, thick, and fluffed into a masculine display around the chest and neck. She guessed that if it stood on its hind legs it would tower nearly three feet over her. It had a far more wolf-like snout than most of the creatures on the estate, with long yellow fangs guiding its hot breath. When it opened its mouth wide Rosamin saw the folded flesh along its cheeks was a reddish purple, like lovesickness blooming under a fresh bruise. Its eyes were tiny and piercing like wasp stings. The creature bit into the leather of her case, found it unpalatable, and tossed it aside.
Rosamin slowly reached one hand over her shoulder and into her pack. Her fingers frantically searched for the strap of her emission goggles. The gigantic baboon barked at her and pushed on her stomach with the back of one of its wrists. She stumbled back.
“I-I’m a friend of Janet’s,” she stammered. There were a thousand more phrases she could try that one of Janet’s subjects might recognize, but the words caught in her throat. The baboon’s jaw hung open and its long dark tongue curled. A rope of saliva dropped from it. The baboon barked again, louder this time. An obvious threat. It pounded its knuckles against the ground and demanded… something. Rosamin had no idea what. She had no identification to show it. No banana to tempt it. All she had was…
Rosamin whipped out her goggles and pulled them over her eyes. She focused through the first set of lenses, the clear ones, and held her hand to the little switch on the goggles’ side. The baboon roared and screamed at her. It beat its barrel-sized chest and charged forward. Its thin tail whipped back and forth and its long calloused fingers reached out towards her, ready to pull her head into its reeking purple mouth.
She depressed the switch. Another set of lenses, blue this time, dropped down over her eyes. She focused on one of the baboon’s outstretched hands. There was a sound like children’s choir concentrated into lightning. Two cones of blue light fired from her goggles and converged on one of the baboon’s palms. It seared its flesh. The creature panicked, stumbled, and backed away. It was frightened now, but no less violent. It shook its head and sprayed spittle bombs all over her.
With the goggles firmly in place she was no longer in significant danger. Instead she was worried about having to injure or kill one of Janet’s research subjects. Now that she looked at it through her blue lenses she had to admit it was a terribly impressive specimen.
The goggles, like the dwindling manipulator, were another invention of Rosamin’s. The goggles she was not so willing to share with the academy because of how easy their conversion into weapons would be. They were made possible by man’s understanding of the emission theory of sight; all eyes emit diffuse light that bounces off its surroundings. Some of that light is received back into the eye where the brain interprets it as an image. It was quite similar to the way bats found their way in the dark by listening for the echo of their own calls.
Early microscopists were not fans of emission sight. Their earliest attempts to view a magnified image ended up concentrating their own eye beams and burning whatever they were trying to observe to a crisp. It took decades to create a lens that only magnified the returning light. Rosamin’s goggles simply used different sets of lenses to focus her natural eye beams into useful rays. At the lightest she could start a campfire. At the most intense she could melt steel from twenty feet away. She thanked the star-holes she’d decided to bring them just to show off for Janet.
Tycho emerged from the house. When the sasquatch saw the commotion he dropped the broom he carried and leapt down most of the stairs to her side. He roared and beat his own chest rather uncharacteristically. Rosamin wondered if he felt uncivilized having to resort to the old ways. The baboon didn’t seem particularly convinced by his display. Though Tycho was taller, the baboon looked to have quite a bit of weight on him. The black furred beast curled its lips and bared its teeth even more. At this rate he’d soon bear them so completely they’d fall out.
“Mango!” Janet called from the top step. She’d followed shortly behind Tycho. She looked very comfortable in her green housecoat with her long silver hair enjoying its freedom from the buns and ponytails she wore in public. She carried her walking stick. “You’re not misbehaving are you?” The monstrous baboon finally shut its mouth. It fell onto its haunches and stared at the ground. It barked a little, like it was making an excuse.
“Go back where you belong,” Janet ordered. “No more behavior like this or else.” The baboon grunted. It glanced sideways at Janet who stared it down. Then it got to its feet and knuckles and ran off into the jungle fast as a jockey-less racehorse. Tycho picked up the research case, grasped Rosamin’s hand, and escorted her up the steps to the lady of the house.
“I would have appreciated some warning Janet,” Rosamin said. “I don’t remember the monkeys being so violent.” She thanked Tycho as he handed the case over. He picked up the broom and started sweeping the steps.
“I’m sorry dear,” Janet apologized. “Mango knows he is not supposed to be in this area. He’s been moody lately, so much so that he’s driven off all his friends.”
“Is he some sort of baboon?”
“He’s a Dusky Mountain Drill actually; I don’t know how many of them are left. I’m starting to wonder if that’s what he’s so bitter about. Perhaps he senses it.”
“How do you have such control over a creature like that? He wasn’t even afraid of Tycho!”
“Oh it’s not control that matters among apes. It’s influence. He knows that all the females on the estate trust me completely. All I have to do is make one negative gesture and he would get the cold shoulder from all the prettiest ladies until I said otherwise. Apes are one of the few creatures where communication is a greater power than brute force.” Janet stared out into the tree line quietly, like she was looking for something. “Shall we go inside? I have lunch waiting.”
Janet and Rosamin made their way indoors, down a long hallway with a squeaky red wood floor, and into a small greenhouse with just enough room in the middle for a round table and two chairs. Once she sat down Rosamin was able to relax. She breathed in the aromas of the plated meal and the surrounding flowers and fruits all at once. There was no telling which scents were actually from the food.
“I hope the spread isn’t too exotic for you,” Janet said. “I rarely eat local fare anymore. If you want to be healthy at my age you need a worldly palate.” She picked up a tiny white bowl full of black paste. “Bean paste for the digestion.” A plate with slices of a blood red citrus fruit. “Blumelo for immunities.” A large tureen of green rice flecked with grain shells. “Bamboo rice to fight fatigue.” She brought out a small bottle of snake oil and poured the thick fluid into her glass of warm cider. “And a little of the devil’s oil to amplify all the effects.”
“You’ve taken all of these measures and your legs are still giving out?” Rosamin asked.
“A good diet doesn’t create immortals,” she sighed. “Maybe one day there will be a concoction equal parts snake, silphium, and wine that can refute the idea of the lifespan, but I fear not in our time. What have you brought me dear? Do you have a concoction to at least give those taken by the palpitations the spans they deserve?”
“I’ve given all my sleeping time to the problem,” Rosamin started. She grabbed her research case and rifled through it before removing a stack of papers bound by leather ringlets. She carefully handed the heavy packet to Janet so the drooping corners would not scoop the bamboo rice out of its dish. Janet flipped through the findings. Rosamin took a swig of cider. “I’ve been through all the major texts and tested a hundred different compounds. There’s nothing I can administer that will kill the animalcule without killing its host. They make their home in the lungs, where the tissue is very sensitive.”
“This is not a treatment plan,” Janet noticed. She pulled out a pair of reading glasses and donned them so she could scan the footnotes. Her finger darted across the bottom of the page. Rosamin was envious of her speed, after so many months with her eyelashes brushing across the dusty pages of every medical text she felt she could barely process any information she read. Everything was starting to look like the claw scratches of prehistoric invertebrates.
“No it is not. It is a prevention plan. After so many failed cures I shifted my efforts into understanding the life cycle of the disease. Prevention is the smart man’s cure anyway.” Janet snapped her fingers without looking up from the research. A small black monkey with a cream-colored chest and chin came running in on all fours. It pulled itself up onto the table, where Rosamin could see its collar and the tray with three small dishes attached to it. The monkey took a small spoon and began adding dollops of mayonnaise and cream sauce to some of the dishes on the table. Rosamin patted the little beast on the head. The elated creature responded by opening the sugar dish and giving Rosamin two extra scoops on her dessert.
“These measures will be considered a touch extreme. I’m certain the people of Two York would prefer a capsule or an ointment,” Janet said and dismissed the monkey; the creature made sure to wave goodbye to Rosamin. “How did you settle on these?”
“I was only able to create those measures once I had a complete understanding of its life cycle. It’s an understanding that has so far eluded the other members of the academy, at least according to a few little birds writing me letters each month.”
“Bill Nimble is chief among them. He’s had a bad year for weather predictions. On days that are hotter than he estimated he gets blamed for any palpitation deaths that occur. His gossip comes with lengthy lamentations on his prospects. The way he writes it seems he has no one willing to listen in person. He worries he will never find love in such a hostile place.”
“Poor Bill. He doesn’t have the constitution to be scrutinized. I wonder why he ever took such a public position. You were saying… about the life cycle?”
“Right. Honestly I stumbled upon the theory. Did you happen to read about the Two Yorker named Jay Mcmawkin?”
“Is that the fellow whose arm caught fire?”
“Yes. He’s one of only three this year to survive their bout with palpitations. The doctors who examined the charred remnants at the scene, who apparently had to borrow a set of knives from the butcher across the street, guessed that his life was saved by a blood clot in the arm. The blood that was thickened by caloric couldn’t pass by it and concentrated in his limb. Once the animalcules have ignited, the host body develops an immunity, the same way beating a cold means you can never take ill from that miasma again. The catch is that only a small percentage survives the igniting.”
“How did Jay’s story inspire you?”
“There was a long account of his day leading up to the fire in the paper. I suppose everyone is desperate for the details so they can avoid doing everything he did. One detail in particular caught my eye. He recounted how his wife, standing just a short distance away, blew him a kiss. He said that he expressed his appreciation by opening his mouth wide and swallowing the kiss.”
“What does a silly jest so truly worthy of a married man have to do with it?”
“It was no jest, not to the animalcules present in his wife’s breath. Confirming it was arduous. I spent days wearing a filtered mask to prevent the inhalation of the animalcules. I made more than fifty mice explode in the process. In the end it was as plain as the rash the mask left on my chin; SHC is a romantically transmitted affliction.”
“An RTA? Did the man share the intimate details of his bedroom in the paper as well?”
“No. This is an RTA unlike all the others. The classic lovers’ maladies, Nebrio’s engorgement, saddle hips, and cooties are all passed by the contact of bodily humors. SHC is instead transferred in the breath, most effectively in the intimacy of a deep kiss. The heated air of exhalation carries both caloric and the animalcule into the throat and lungs.”
“A caloric kiss,” Janet muttered.
“Everything fits. It even helps explain why the percentage of male exploding victims is so much higher than the female. Women naturally have lower caloric since we are determined by lower womb temperatures. This allows us to carry a warm child without overheating and, incidentally, helps us cope with the excess caloric caused by the animalcule. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of infected women is actually quite high, but most of them never suffer any symptoms.”
“Oh my, that’s truly hilarious,” Janet said without actually laughing. Her mischievous smile did persist through at least three bites of scone. “You see it everywhere in the animal kingdom. The men are always firecrackers compared to the women: shorter lives, hotter tempers, egos more prone to bruising. Now all that fire in their belly that they always brag about is making them erupt in public like incontinent volcanoes.”
“I get the feeling you’re picturing a certain man who deserves it,” Rosamin poked.
“Oh no,” Janet rebutted as she stroked the head of her walking stick with her thumb. “I’ve nothing against a particular man. It’s a particular attitude that irks me. It, like the palpitations, uses men as its canvas.”
“What attitude is that?”
“We don’t need to discuss it now. In fact I want to attend this year’s symposium before I say anything more about it. For all I know it’s just the paranoia that’s come with the gray hairs and the quaking knees.” Janet peered outside the walls of the greenhouse, trying to spot Tycho.
“Well…” Rosamin started, trying to draw the old woman’s attention back. She didn’t immediately succeed. “Once the academy sees my research they’ll gobble it up and distribute it to the medicinal journals. The board of medicine can start printing pamphlets with recommendations right away. Two Yorkers will don their cloth masks and abstain from kissing for a period of six months to a year in order to starve out the current strain of the animalcule. There will be stragglers and deniers, but an eighty percent adoption rate should be sufficient.”
“What about the whispering of sweet nothings?” Janet suggested, only half in jest.
“They’ll have to put a cork in those too. I’ve never understood the point of sweet nothings. They’re like the passing scent of strawberries. Hardly nourishing. I would never accept anything less than a sweet something.”
“I’m sorry dear, I wasn’t listening at all. Did you say something important?”
“Far from it actually. I’m just buzzing like a fly over all this lovely food. I’ve forgotten to thank you for having me.”
“It’s no trouble. Tycho is excellent company, but he refuses to sit at the table and eat with me. Sometimes an old woman just needs the ritual of dining.”
“You could entertain more guests,” Rosamin suggested.
“But the guests could not entertain me,” Janet said. Rosamin watched again as her gaze wandered out the window and into the canopy outside her home. Rosamin tried to stop her imagination from digging up the rumors about her friend, rumors that were born decades ago when Janet’s legs had her climbing trees along with her research subjects in an effort to better understand them. The most colorful grape on the vine claimed that she had been seen in the heart of darkest Africa, naked as an earthworm, swinging through the branches of the acacia. To Rosamin it sometimes seemed like Janet was acting human as a nicety, as a way to avoid unsettling the creatures around her. Janet’s mind did not seem ape or human or anything else. She was an observer. An intelligent echo.
“I think this year’s fair will be my last,” Janet finally said. “Once I pass through another winter I think Tycho will be forced to carry me like an infant everywhere I go.”
“I… I’m sorry Janet. We could get you a wheelchair.” There was another silence, with only the muffled chittering of two monkeys arguing in the kitchen to break it up.
“The only reason I’m toughing it out this year is to see you get that medal,” Janet said. “I was going to wait until we started the trip to tell you, but now feels like the right time. I’m ending all official research this year. I’m going to write a memoir about the lineages of apes I keep here. It’ll be an epic, probably ignored, with plenty of heartbreak, betrayal, usurpation, and even murder. And while I’m busy knocking loudly at the door of literature, I expect you to do great things with all of the funding I’m handing off to you.”
“Janet… Can you even do that?”
“An average person couldn’t, but my books are on too many shelves to ignore. With my recommendation you’ll be using extra grants as bedding.”
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you! That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.” Rosamin suppressed a tear and fanned herself with one hand. Janet gave her a smile to calm her down. In truth she thought there was a possibility that, very soon, Rosamin might be in desperate need of all the help she could get. Janet wore the false smile the rest of the night. There was no need to worry her yet. If they did start to feel the heat, it would only be under the stubborn Second York sun.
The Castle’s Vault
The first night of the 1904 World’s Fair was its busiest. It was a good thing the temporary wiring had been tested and improved the previous summer, because sparks dropping onto the 1904 crowd would’ve started a stampede that overturned autowagons and killed hundreds. This time the wires hummed obediently far above the thousands of shuffling feet. A bundle of them were connected to the corner of the roof of the World’s Fair Hotel, whose owner had graciously agreed to let his building act as a mooring for the fair’s power.
The owner was one Doctor Henry Howard Holmes, aged forty-five and with three times the business acumen of the average medical professional. He’d only practiced medicine briefly, deciding instead to purchase a small chain of pharmacies and manage them. He’d eventually bought most of the property around the original store and added two floors and dozens of rooms until he’d created the building most locals called ‘the castle’. Its bottom floor housed the pharmacy and several other shops while the middle and upper floors held his office, private quarters, and many hotel rooms. There was a large basement as well, but only Holmes knew it was there.
He was in his office that evening, watching fairgoers through the window as they navigated the streets like salmon, absentmindedly dropping popcorn like it was roe. He sat still for hours, examining. His hand was wrapped around a pen that was halfway through a signature on a life insurance form. When he finally did decide to move his hand again, the finished signature would read Henry Gordon. Dr. Holmes knew that in order to be as wealthy as several men, you had to act the part. These temporary men that existed as signatures and anecdotes had very short lifespans. The average one Holmes created would only live about eight months before being drawn into a horrific accident like a moth to a flame. Holmes was always there to collect the poor fellow’s life insurance.
He was only able to finish the signature because he’d found what he was searching for out that window. She was young, blonde, and indecisive. She’d hovered in front of the hotel’s entrance for several minutes and examined a map. Every minute or so she would turn the map around and pretend to have a revelation. Holmes waited for her to step inside. When she did he quickly sealed Henry Gordon’s fate and rushed out of the office. On his way out he snagged his vest, buttoned it all the way up, and donned a new bowler hat with an orange ribbon that was untouched by the hovering dust you’d expect from a cramped office.
Dr. Holmes took his keyring out of his jacket pocket. He gripped the lengths of the keys all at once to prevent them from jangling obnoxiously. If a woman were to hear all those keys she might think he was just some kind of clerk. Holmes opened the door to a private slim staircase and descended to the ground floor. When he locked the bottom door he leaned up against it, standing between the confection shop and the pharmacy. The guest stairs were straight down the hall and that was the only path available to people without the keys to the castle. She would have to pass by there if she was staying. He waited.
The young woman entered the busy corridor, a large purse over one shoulder and the key to room twenty-four in her hand. He stepped in front of her. He knew better than to give her time to judge his face; he was a pale man with sleepy eyes and a sizable, wiry, chin-smothering mustache that couldn’t quite create the masculine aura he’d hoped to achieve. He needed to talk. The doctor could talk corn into popping. He could change a telegram’s mind after it was sent.
“Good day miss! I’m Dr. Holmes; I’m the owner of this hotel.” The woman’s startled expression gave him a chance to examine her features more clinically. Large forehead. Thick dark eyebrows. Bony cheeks and a nose like a piece of chewing gum slightly deformed between two fingers. Not quite the vision he thought he’d seen out the window, but beauty is only skin deep after all. She pulled a new English phrase book out of her bag that had more dog ears than the racetrack. She tapped it. “Oh you’ve come very far…”
“I am from the Dutch,” she said with a thick accent. Her smile was a little too big as she hoped her cheer would crumble the stubborn language barrier. “You are owner of this?” she asked and gestured to the building around her, nearly dropping her bag in the process. The doctor helped her steady it.
“Yes I am. May I see your key for a moment?” He held out his hand. She dropped the key into his palm and it jingled against the ring. The doctor gritted his teeth. He examined the number on it closely, pretending his vision was poor. “Oh. Oh I see. Number twenty-four is a fine room, but not fine enough for a beautiful young lady like yourself.” She blushed. “May I ask your name miss?”
“Hanny? That’s lovely. I confess that I didn’t have much of a reason when I started speaking to you… aside from your radiance.” She knitted her brow. “Your beauty,” he clarified and watched her confusion turn back into a smile. “My… my mouth was going before I knew what was happening.” He calculated exactly how flustered he should appear. Sometimes he needed to repeat himself once and sometimes twice, whatever it took to convince them his every breath wasn’t a precise calculation determined the prior day or earlier. “But now that I’ve stopped you, please let me make up for it. Please let me put you in one of our luxury rooms.” He fumbled with the larger key ring dexterously, searching for the key whose position was already known. He pulled the silver hunk of metal, labeled thirty-one, off the ring and handed it to her.
“This is nicer room?” she asked.
“The nicest I have to offer.”
“You are a kind man. Thanking you.”
“May I take your bag and escort you?” He held out his arm for her to take. She took hold and handed her bag over. From there the doctor walked her to the guest stairs and took her up to the third floor. When they reached the door he unlocked it and held it open for her. When she took her bag and placed it on the bed she looked back at the doctor, who was still leaning into the door and gripping the knob. “Are you here for the fair?” he asked.
“Yes. I come to see the fair. I see the lights already; I want to take them back to the Dutch with me.”
“They are a sight aren’t they? Try not to have too much fun, or your exuberance is bound to catch another fool’s eye. You might have far too many gifts to carry when you try to leave.”
“You are too kind.”
“Oh I don’t think I can be. I’ve taken enough of your time; I’ll leave you to enjoy our creature comforts. Have a lovely stay Hanny.”
Dr. Holmes closed the door. He stood in front of it for thirty seconds, listening to her shuffling about inside. He thought about knocking and asking her to dinner. With all the men he’d conjured out of thin air he’d managed to create a real live Mrs. Holmes twice already. He was still technically married to the second one, but a third couldn’t hurt. He didn’t knock though; he had a feeling her real beauty was hidden and he was too keen on unwrapping her and seeing it for himself. He instead pulled out an extra key for room thirty-one, locked it from the outside silently, walked over to room thirty-two, grabbed yet another key, and let himself inside.
He knew it was unoccupied because room thirty-two was one of several built just for him. What a hassle it had been obscuring the castle’s many secrets. Over the course of construction he’d employed four different construction companies and never let a single one finish an entire floor. There existed no complete draft of the building’s layout other than the one in the doctor’s mind. There were hallways with dead ends built at angles so slightly odd as to disturb a person without them realizing what exactly was off. There were doors that could only lock from the outside. Strange vents that didn’t circulate the air at all. A dozen hidden passages. Even if the doctor passed away and his spirit wandered through the castle’s solid walls, he would hardly be moving more efficiently than he already could.
Room thirty-two was identical to its neighbor in appearance: there was a bed, a nightstand, a dresser topped with an oval mirror, and two lamps attached to the wall with bronze fixtures that would take either oil or phlogiston dust. It was the left lamp that the doctor was interested in. There was a small glass knob that opened and closed the lamp to air, but if you pressed your eye against it you would realize the center of the knob was a lens that traveled through the wall and connected to the knob of the lamp in room thirty-one. Dr. Holmes stared down it and twisted it in and out to focus on Hanny.
She was seated on the bed, shoes kicked off, perusing her phrase book. It was important that the room was airtight, so Holmes couldn’t hear what she was muttering. He’d made the mistake of waiting too long before. Sometimes he’d set his trap and lost himself in observation so long that they’d gotten up and tried to leave the room. He didn’t want Hanny to get away. He wanted her in his hands. He wanted to polish her and put her on the shelf so he could look at those two little tent-shaped holes and be proud that he’d turned her chewed-gum nose into something much more elegant.
Behind the dresser, on the wall, there was a valve. He pulled the piece of furniture away and turned the valve twice. His eye returned to the glass knob. He let his mind idle, like it had been halfway through the signature in his office. It was a state he’d never been in as a child, at least not until his school years.
Before he was a doctor, before he’d ever laid hands on a woman or even a girl, he’d been an impeccable student with none of the sleep in his eyes that now characterized his face so completely. No, sleeping in class was for the three boys who tormented him in retribution for the high marks he got that reflected so poorly on them. The taunting kept him quiet. The beatings filled him with fear. One day they dragged him into a local doctor’s place of practice. He remembered one of them had his hand over his mouth and it smelled terribly, like the callused belly of a desiccated toad.
The boys opened a closet and tossed him inside, putting a chair up against the door knob to prevent his escape. Then they left. Little Henry stumbled about in the darkness, counting the number of seconds until it was safe to yell. He bumped into something large that rattled in retaliation. When his eyes adjusted he saw the ivory face and bottomless eyes of a skeleton. The bony fellow was strung up for teaching purposes, but the twisted lesson Henry learned that day was not something even the skeleton would have approved of.
At first he was paralyzed with fear. He thought that if he blinked he would suddenly see his own eyes in the skull’s sockets. He’d look down and see the rest of his flesh transported from his body to the bare ribs of the cadaver. The fear ate up his breath and all his screams came out as whispers. He huddled in the corner and cried and begged god to make the dead man stop staring at him.
Nobody came for him for hours. He came to realize that the skeleton could not hurt him. Not only that, he knew, for a fact, that it could never even want to hurt him. It was a human being with no will of its own. And it was sort of beautiful in its own way. No slimy sweat. No wiry hair. It had aged to a hardened perfection and become a solid rock like the crust of the Earth itself. An organic gemstone with a shape reminiscent of intelligence. Eventually Henry lost himself in those bottomless eyes. It wasn’t until many years later, when attending a live performance of Lysistrata, did he realize that he got more entertainment from the black pits of a skull than the high culture before him. He kept thinking that the men onstage, whose ambitions of war were threatened by the organized withholding of sex by their wives, could just go about their business if their damn organs weren’t so persuasive. He wondered where the comedy of skeletons was, the show that got down to the bone of every issue.
He gave up on the theater and he gave up on medicine as its ethics did not allow him to explore the human body the way he wished, but he had high hopes for Hanny. She was taking a very dramatic turn as she collapsed onto the bed and clutched her throat. The valve the doctor had turned was quickly filling the room with gas and suffocating her. She cried out, but the walls were soundproof. The bottom of the door was sealed. Room thirty-one was his vault and only he could open it. All Hanny could do was put on a steadily weaker performance for him as each moment passed. For the grand finale she grabbed for her English phrase book and, in one last spasm, tossed it at the door. The ending impressed Holmes. He wondered if she was looking for the word help. His mind went blank for a while. He stared into the knob until his eye was watery and red. When he was satisfied there would be no encore, he turned the valve again to open the room to fresh air.
When he entered room thirty-one he was done wasting time. Once he was sharing air with her body he could think of nothing but the smell of rot getting into his carpets. He picked up the young woman, scanned the hallway to make sure no one was approaching, and took her out to a laundry chute that the doctor had built without the intention of ever sending laundry down it. He dumped her inside. There was no sound of her landing because he had a massive pile of rags set up in the basement to catch her. Now that she was stored he had all the time in the world to get her and finish the process.
The basement was a grim chamber furnished with two lime pits for the dissolving of flesh from bodies. Hanny was not the first permanent guest of the castle. It had been built for Holmes’ extensive nefarious hobbies. Her body would not work as proof of the death of Henry Gordon, so he would most likely strip her of her tissues, articulate her, and sell her to a medical college as a teaching skeleton. Perhaps one day she could teach someone the same lesson he learned in that closet. Nobody ever questioned where he got these skeletons, after all the man was a former doctor and a respected man of the community. The king of his castle.
A Ticket to Transylvania
Rosamin stared at herself in the mirror. She applied the make-up around her eyes delicately, so as not to irritate the red marks from her constant wearing of various pairs of research goggles. She reached into her bag and pulled out her latest, and simplest, prototype. It was a mask of red cloth to cover the lower half of her face. It was unmarked, but had a white tassel below her chin in the shape of a snake’s forked tongue. The tassels were common on popular scarves as a way for people to show their appreciation of all the things snakes and their oils had done for the world recently. She hoped the color and the decoration would make the idea seem more palatable to the public. Schools could make them in their own colors. Mothers could stitch each child’s initial on them.
She was going to show up to the symposium that day wearing the mask as a conversation piece. Though Janet’s promise had given her great hope for her career, she still felt the urge to draw her peers in and ensnare them with her ideas. Why yes Professor Lieb, this does have to do with my presentation today. Would you like one? I brought several extras, she practiced in front of the mirror. She tried the mask on and tested her volume through it.
“Dr. Mandala you look lovely today. This? It’s far more than simple fashion,” she informed the full-length mirror next to her temporary bed. She wanted to present herself to Janet first, which would have happened as planned if the hotel had not vehemently insisted Tycho stay somewhere else. They refunded Janet’s money and told her she could not take the room next to Rosamin. She had to make last minute arrangements to stay in the private residence of an old colleague who had picked mites off troglodytes with her in Borneo a few decades ago. Luckily that kind of bond survives the test of time.
Rosamin made a note never to stay at the World’s Fair Hotel again, but for now her belongings were spread across one of its beds. She pecked at the assortment of items like a nervous hen, utterly uncertain what to bring to the symposium. She felt naked without her emission goggles, but something so dangerous was probably anathema to the mood of the evening. The rush she was in forced her to make decisions. She took her proposal, her small flat box of masks, a coin purse she could tie to her belt, and nothing else. Her escort to the symposium would be arriving any minute.
She stowed everything away to keep it out of the hands of nosy maids and exited the room. As she fumbled with the key and lock, someone approached her from down the hall. Rosamin was feeling slightly ill due to the subtle tilt of the corridor, though she did not recognize the cause. The man walking towards her was certainly used to it by now. He was planning on offering her an upgrade to a room where she might be more comfortable, important scientist that she was. He rubbed his hands together and took off his hat to introduce himself. He opened his mouth.
“The mask is an odd choice,” Wallace Dancing Rocks said to her as she finished locking the door. The man next to them closed his mouth and kept walking as if he’d never planned on stopping. Oh well. She wasn’t even blonde. Rosamin turned to greet the geo-engineer and pulled the mask down to speak. She’d kept up correspondence with Mr. Dancing Rocks since last year, adding him to her letter-writing circle that was quickly becoming unmanageable. His engineering expertise was impressive, but Rosamin found his tips on equipment suppliers far more valuable. Without him she never could have gotten all her experimental mice for less than a third of their normal price.
“It won’t seem so odd after today,” she hinted. “You’ll be seated with us again this year Wallace?”
“Yes. You three are my only friends in Two York, except maybe the mechanical Vanian.”
“I suppose I never told you. I saw a show at the fair last year featuring that Transylvanian gaming machine. I also found an opportunity to speak with it for a few minutes.”
“Was he a decent sort?” Rosamin gibed.
“He accurately predicted the worsening of the combustion in the city.” Rosamin dropped her smile.
“Oh my. Maybe I’m in the wrong field… listen… You trust me right Wallace? I’m telling you I’ve got the answer to the combustion. Do you believe me?”
“I do,” Wallace said, remembering her confidence last year when she pointed out her own name on the presentation slide. Rosamin dug a second mask out and handed it to him.
“Will you wear this at the symposium?” she asked. “I think every member with one on will help me get the word out. If all four of us have them we’re sure to get noticed.” Wallace looked apprehensive. She wasn’t sure if he was trying to avoid too much attention because he was attending more as an agent of his company than a scholar, or if red just wasn’t his color.
“I suppose there’s no harm in it,” he eventually said and placed it around his neck. He held out his arm for her to take and the two of them walked to the exit. Wallace’s autowagon was outside, with Bill sitting in the front and guarding it more like a sheep than a sheepdog. He happily shuffled to the side to make room for the two of them and then they drove, slowly thanks to the fair crowds bustling around them, to the university. Some children even ran their hands along the vehicle’s wood panels, certain they were looking at one of the exhibition pieces.
This time Janet and Tycho had beaten them there and were waiting by the Chinese medicine stand, which was once again enjoying the boon of the fair and the symposium. Only this time the man’s son was manning it as well, just in case another combustion meant they had to sell twice as many salves and sedatives. Rosamin dug into her box and pulled out masks for Bill and Janet. Tycho held out his calloused gray palm. Rosamin smiled weakly and shrugged. Tycho cast his eyes down and pulled his hand back, but before he could finish Rosamin slipped the strap of an extra-large mask around his pinky.
“You didn’t think I’d forget you, did you big guy?” Even though it wasn’t natural, he mimicked a smile to show his satisfaction.
As the group moved inside they were surprised to find the symposium even busier than the previous year. They had feared the combustion of poor Jacob Turner would scare their fellows away; they were partly right, but for every member that stayed home there were two members of the press to take their place. Someone had tipped them that the solution to the city’s crisis was on the tip of the academy’s tongue and they wanted to be there when it dropped to lap it up. The four scientists, even Rosamin, began to regret their decision to wear the face masks; photographers stopped them every ten feet for a picture. Perhaps it would have only been every thirty feet if not for the towering ape with them whose face was similarly adorned.
When they finally made it to their seats they all looked to the other side of the lecture hall and saw the spot where Jacob had burst into flame. The seat was empty, as were the ten seats around it. The chair had been entirely replaced, but its new fabric and wood made it stand out nonetheless.
Rosamin grew increasingly nervous as the opening speeches played out. Her hands became so sweaty that she was worried about damaging her proposal, so she handed it to Bill. When she found his hands were even sweatier, she took it back and gave it to Wallace, whose hands were dryer than a matchbox dropped in the Mojave. He took the liberty of flipping through it and scanning her notes. He was no doctor, but information was information and he had a very good memory.
They all silently begged Chairman Dilcourt to get things going; he seemed to be stuttering more than usual thanks to the frequent camera flashes. Rosamin noticed he kept glancing at the people in the front row. She could see just from the backs of their heads that they were high society types: men with black bowties, nowhere near as playful as Bill’s, and women with hair coiled so tightly that pulling one pin would make their hats bounce to the ceiling
“It is perhaps the greatest honor I have ever known,” Dilcourt said, “to introduce the man who stole the show last year with his hypnotism demonstration.”
“Yeah it was a hell of an act,” Rosamin muttered.
“He’s back this year with the answer to our greatest problem.” Rosamin’s spine stiffened. She sat up in her chair. “Dr. Simon Nikolaus Nielson has solved the volcanic palpitations.” Dilcourt paused to read the audience’s reaction. The scientists were confused. The gadflies from the papers were overjoyed and snapped pictures faster than they could blink. “Calm down everyone. Here’s the man himself; I’m sure he’s eager to explain his conclusions to the world.”
This is a nightmare, Rosamin panicked as Dilcourt took his seat and Nielson took the stage. He was dressed more professionally than his first visit and gone was the aura of an adolescent gazing into the eyes of his first true love. He held himself like a doctor but, try as he might, he couldn’t wipe the arrogant smile off his pink lips. I’m going to lose the credit to timing. To less than two hours. To the tiny puny organizer who wrote the schedule! How’d he do it, throwing darts at our pictures? Of course he hit Simon’s face first; one look and you want to strike him until he learns how to feel shame.
“Friends,” Simon started. “I do think of all of you in that light, because today we will share an experience that will bond us. We will overcome the disease that tried to burn this great city to the ground. May I present to you Volcanic Palpitations: On identifying and Distancing Relevant Vectors of Transmission.” He held up a volume of research like it was the next set of commandments. Rosamin bit her lower lip. She assumed by the title he had come to the same conclusion she had. “Volcanic palpitations, sometimes called spontaneous human combustion, is an animalcule transferred via weak or invisible miasmas, with certain members of the population with inadequate resistances and constitutions serving as the gateway between its normal life cycle and the invasion of human respiratory organs and tissues.”
What?! Rosamin nearly screamed it. Her fingers worked the armrest so hard she left claw marks in the wood. Cock-and-bull! Garbage! There’s no invisible miasma! It can’t survive in anything other than a medium with concentrated caloric! Regular city air won’t do! It would have to be a smokestack and you don’t see every sidewalk Joe and fruit stand Jane sticking their faces down those! Something’s off! He’s no closer than a cardinal is to the firmament! She looked over to Janet, who, despite knowing the extent of the conflict, wasn’t smiling.
“Through rigorous experimentation, surveying, and polling, we have narrowed down the unwitting culprits. The primary vectors are individuals recently descended from environments where the animalcule is not native. As it is North American in origin, people of African, Chinese, and South American ancestry run a much greater risk of both contracting and spreading the infection. The most recent wave of Irish and Italian immigrants is also high risk due to Lamarckian insufficiencies in body temperature regulation, temperament, and blood pressure. It is the official recommendation of myself and the Two York Academy of Sciences that we begin a soft quarantine of these peoples. They are people with lives of their own, so mercy must be shown. Our recommendations to the city’s health council and lawmakers will consist of hiring bans, higher taxation for health services, and the labeling of neighborhoods to help people learn which areas of the city are safest. I was not able to synthesize a cure or inoculation, not so quickly anyway, but I feel that these safety measures could rid us of volcanic palpitations in as little as six to eight months.”
The crowd did not have a chance to erupt as they were preempted by Rosamin, who bolted out of her chair and up to her full diminutive height. All eyes fell on her. All the cameras stopped flashing, but a thousand fingers rested on the buttons. Was this tiny Chinese woman about to berate a brilliant physician for suggesting she was diseased? Was she about to literally explode in proof of his point? She pulled down her mask.
“There are no miasmas!” she exclaimed, fighting the frothing urge to scream it until she squeaked. “Volcanic palpitations is not transferred via any particular type of person. It is transferred by intimate contact of breath! By general closeness, kissing, or resuscitation! It is a new type of RTA! There is no weakness in certain populations unless you count the male’s higher rate of eruption. My data confirms all of this.” She grabbed her proposal from Wallace and tried to hold it higher than Simon had held his.
The academy threw itself into the worst argument in the history of its symposiums. They might have all disregarded Rosamin, especially after she had spoken out of turn the previous years, if not for a member of a snake oil institution who stood up right after she made her claim. He was a tiny man, but big in reputation.
“My findings were consistent with Miss Bluff-Polk’s. We observed no evidence of miasmas or weakness in specific populations.” Someone else stood up to defend Dr. Nielson.
“The plague arrived on the same boat with the potato eaters! You can track it almost to the day!” Insults and claims flew back and forth indiscriminately. The flurry of photography picked up again, filling the air with flash powder. Strom waddled up to the magnophone, but even with its assistance he couldn’t compete with the crowd. A small freckled photographer from the Journal of Miasma Matters snapped a perfect cross section of the mob, with two men in the corner swapping right hooks, a woman tossing a flurry of papers into the air, scientists falling over chairs and losing their spectacles in an effort to get closer to either Rosamin or Simon, and Strom bellowing above it all like the conductor of hell’s orchestra. The image would appear on next week’s cover with the headline: Conflict Turns Academy into Human Miasma.
“That oriental vixen!”
“No unusual miasmic activity in months!”
“Sit down! Act your education!”
“What do the doctors from Buffalo think? Did anybody ask them? Where are they?”
“Get off my foot or I’ll sue you into the darkest corner of a filing cabinet!”
“Hey… stop! Ouch! You son of a-”
“Miss Polk! Over here! Smile pretty!”
“That mentalist is on the wrong stage!”
“I didn’t sign up for this madness!”
“Somebody attacked Mrs. Laundier! Help her up man!”
“It’s the blacks, like he said! Black as coal and as easy to ignite! It’s official!”
“Hush! Quiet! Shut your poisonous mouth!”
“Somebody get that sasquatch out of here!”
“Who’s that Indian?”
“Do you trust anybody who pals around with Nimble?”
“Back up! We need to look at the research! The research everyone!”
“Stuff your research! Simon’s was reviewed by the academy!”
“Nobody ran it by me! What’s the meaning of this Dilcourt?”
“Can I get you all to look this way please! This way! You in the bowtie, this way!”
“You’re blocking the exit! I… I’m going to faint! Eugh…”
“The Rhode Island Snake Oil Institute is one hundred percent behind Rosamin!”
“Bole and Smig Palliatives are with the academy! As are all true scientists!”
“Why is this happening? This has never… never…”
“We mustn’t fight!”
“Speak for yourself African!”
“He punched her! I saw it! Uff! Who… who punched me? Where are you?”
“Someone dropped their medal! Stop! It’s mine!”
“Stop with the pictures already!”
“You can’t take my camera!”
“You don’t want to bring us into this pal!”
“Get Miss Bluff-Polk out of here! Call the police! Somebody settle this!”
“Let’s split up! Nielson that way! Polk this way!”
“We’ll move into the cafeteria!”
“Nielson’s going into the library!”
“I’m going wherever that goliath monkey isn’t.”
“Everyone get off of me!” Rosamin shouted as she pulled herself out of a tangled tumbleweed of grabbing hands and loose papers. The chaotic blob of scholars had successfully split in two and oozed into two separate rooms. Two men and two women from the zoological society made a human chain across the entrance to the cafeteria and kept the photographers out so they could all have a few moments to think and discuss. The journalists did not relent and continued to ignite their flashes through the holes in the chain. Wallace felt a little too much like he was being shot at, so he turned one of the cafeteria tables on its side and kneeled behind it, where the lenses couldn’t reach him. Everyone around followed his lead until a wall of tables and crouched scientists neutralized the power of the scene for the snapping cameras.
Rosamin leaned against a table and banged her head on the wood, trying to knock some sense into herself. She ripped off her mask and crumpled it in her hand. Bill gasped next to her, having taken several photographs directly to the face. He blinked and rubbed his eyes.
“What got into everyone?” he asked no one in particular.
“It seems Rosamin rattled a few chairs,” Wallace commented.
“Simon’s an imbecile!” Rosamin shouted and banged her fist against the table. “He can’t have research that confirms what he said. It’s all nonsense; I’m right.”
“Calm down for a moment,” Janet said. She stood up and grabbed Tycho’s arm. The ape helped her over to where the members of the snake oil institute were crouching with Lucille Roquin, who held a seat on the academy’s board.
“I can almost see again,” Bill whimpered. He straightened his tie as he squinted in case someone was still taking his picture.
“Even if we did see higher rates in Irish or Chinese areas,” Rosamin ranted, “it would be negligible. The result of location! Poorer neighborhoods, where immigrants often live, have worse houses which have worse ventilation! Maybe, just maybe, that caused a few combustions, but it hardly implies a medical difference in the races! What kind of talk is that?”
“English,” Wallace said plainly. “It sounds like a very modest proposal to me.” The scientists crouched around them all looked at Wallace.
“You don’t mean…” a tiny entomologist started.
“Of course he doesn’t,” Bill said. “This is Two York, not London. We’d never have any of that here. Never in a hundred years.”
“May I see your research?” someone who was not bothering to crouch asked Rosamin. He held out his hands expecting compliance. His thick spectacles reflected the few remaining camera flashes. He reached down to take the documents from her. Rosamin recoiled and kicked at him.
“I don’t even know who you are. Don’t touch me. I need… I need some air. No… I need some fair. I need some people who admit they’re being ridiculous. I’m going.” With that she stood up, brushed herself off and waltzed out the back of the cafeteria. Perhaps when civilization regained control her research could be presented. Bill considered following her, but Janet restrained him and pulled him into the conversation with Miss Roquin. They were cooking up something of their own with a recipe Janet had predicted she might need that day.
Since the flood of arguments could be heard outside the university, the Chinese vendor and his son became excited when they saw Rosamin exit; they assumed she was the first of a crowd driven out by whatever controversy reared its head this year. Alas, she was alone and seemed determined to march right past their stand. The old man called out to her in Chinese, asking her if more people would soon follow. She hadn’t practiced her parents’ native language in years, but she remembered enough to catch his meaning. She stormed over and slammed her hands on the stand’s wooden counter and briefly berated him in English.
“You shouldn’t sell a thing to that lot! If they get their way you’ll be marked a leper and people will sooner risk constriction by python than buy python oil from you! I’m going to the fair! You should come with me if you know what’s good for you.” She turned away and continued towards the festivities. She left her wrinkled mask on the old man’s counter. His son took it and considered trying to return it to her. The old man was hardly in the mood to watch his son chase after the hotheaded girl who had just scolded him, so he shoved a bottle into the boy’s hands and told him to get back to work. By the time he looked back Rosamin had phased into the crowd.
The 1904 fair presented a different face from the previous year’s. Though it was crowded as ever, fear of the palpitations had limited the amount of labor available for the construction of its temporary exhibition buildings. Many feared that the long hours spent toiling under the sun increased the risk of eruption, so time-saving measures had to be employed to cope with the smaller number of workers. There were plenty of grand pillars that appeared to be borrowed straight from ancient Reme, stages with colorful curtains, and train tracks for a tiny locomotive to be operated and ridden by children who had a penny to spare, but upon close inspection a fairgoer would quickly realize that most of the walls of the grand production were built from a cheap cement of plaster and hemp over wood, called staff. The staff was skillfully painted to mimic Greek marble, Canadian alpine woods, polished bronze, and anything else that suited the fair, but the weakness of the material led to holes and ugly patches less than a day after the crowds showed up in force.
Rosamin ran her finger along something pretending to be a totem pole; red flecks of paint and a thick gray dust clumped under her nail. She reared the finger back and poked the eye of the raven face on the pole. It went straight through the pupil. She wiggled it around inside the hollow structure. A wrapped gift with nothing inside. Wallpaper. This isn’t supposed to be the face of our work. She decided to journey deeper into the grounds, past the garish welcome banners, in search of true substance. If caloric was the very stuff of heat, she was certain that if she searched long enough inside a concentrated mass of human energy like the fair she could find the very stuff of science. A gem polished from the sort of inspiration that pulled her into the field of microscopy.
There was one building, called the Hall of Discoveries, which was in the process of emptying thanks to its electric lighting being on the fritz. The lamps out front flickered on and off. Past the welcome arch Rosamin found more flickering lights and an assortment of exhibits behind black ropes, many of which appeared temporarily closed or whose showmen were on break.
She walked by a large bowl of grain under an advertising banner. The latest miracle from Mannagrain Industries! Puffed rice! The cereal of this and any other possible futures! Try a free sample! Rosamin picked out a single grain of the pale golden cereal. The bubbles and fractures on its surface reminded her of the plaster she’d just punched a hole in. She knew that under the microscope it would be far more enthralling: a golden labyrinth of flowing oval chambers. Unfortunately, at the moment, all she could do was eat it. She popped the piece in her mouth and bit down. Krich. She chewed. Very dry. Barely even a hint of ‘the future’. It left such a scratch in her throat that she decided to skip the free sample of a waffled cone that purported to be able to hold even the most melted scoops of ice cream.
She found her way out of food and into nature. There was a stable door where a horse that had been taught arithmetic was supposed to stand. For now it was empty, but she could smell the hay and the excrement of the ingenious equid. A chalkboard leaned up against the wall showed the problems ‘Gorgeous Rocko’ had solved that day. She doubted listening to a horse clop its hoof against a stone pad forty-six times had been very entertaining.
The lights flickered again and she saw a great swollen shadow on the floor. She looked up to see a cast of the blue whale, the first complete one ever. Even on the tips of her toes she couldn’t quite reach the end of its fin. Rosamin followed the side of its body down a hallway that grew narrower with its tail and ended in a room the same croissant shape as the end of the tail. The room was broken up into four displays about various tribes from the furthest edges of the earthly disk. Three of them were occupied by wooden or wax sculptures of their respective peoples, but the fourth held a living breathing man. Rosamin wrapped her hands around the black rope and observed him.
He did not immediately notice her, because he had assumed the flickering had led them to close the doors. He was seated under a sign that read Bolo the Tlingit Savage! He’d been paid to act the part by waving around a stone axe and baring his teeth, but at the moment he was seated on a fake stump and reading the newspaper he’d hidden under a bed of paper leaves at the start of his day. The Tlingit were a Natural American people of Alaska, so his display was also filled with fake snow made of cotton. He brushed some of it from his shoulders as he adjusted his position.
I don’t remember these being here last year. A man literally on display like some orangutan? Oh it seems the zoo has run out of ostriches! Let’s just stop by our supplier and pick up a Congolese orphan as a replacement! Disgusting. I did not know this toxic thread connected the academy and the fair. Where else does it lead? Can I take hold of its bloody length and follow it to the courthouse? The papers? Does it stretch all the way across the ocean? Is there an infernal umbilicus rooted to the ground in England somewhere feeding us this division, this hate, these Simon-said lies?
She twisted the rope in her hands and thought about scolding ‘Bolo’ as well for playing along. She wondered how he felt when anyone from the N.T.A. walked by and saw him wearing the clownish war paint his bosses had decorated his cheeks with. Rosamin didn’t care how much money she was offered, she would never pose shirtless behind ropes and roar at ignorant white passersby. She would never put herself, let alone the image of her parents’ home, into a hole like that. No, no axe for her; her hands only held increasingly complex objects as time passed. She’d barely ever cared for the rattle as an infant. It became a book in school, a book that grew thicker until she laid hands on her first microscope.
If the academy won’t listen maybe I can go to the papers. There has to be some collection of people somewhere in Two York who will put eyes on my research. Maybe… maybe I can find a stage right here at the fair. I can pretend I’m just another exhibit. I can throw my warnings on the unsuspecting public and educate them before they even have a chance to flee. Or maybe there’s an easier way for the knowledge to explode over the people… leaflets? I could try leaflets. Perhaps Bill knows a printer. Tycho can stand on street corners with stacks of them and pass them out. He can be the mascot of the cure! No, that’s terribly stupid. That’s the last thing you should be Rosamin. Grow your ideas up. Or give them up. Perhaps fame is just too slippery to hold onto unless you become the special sort of sticky that mesmerist has mastered.
The microscopist was so distracted by her fury that she didn’t hear the two men sneaking up behind her. She only noticed when Bolo’s eyes moved from his paper to over her shoulder. She spun around; the men leaned back and pretended they hadn’t been stalking her through the Hall of Discoveries for nearly ten minutes, waiting for her to be completely isolated.
“Afternoon miss,” one of them said, lifting his hat in such a way that it blocked his face instead of revealing it. They were both quite large, with the one on the right nearly busting his buttons with his gut. Looks like somebody had too much puffed rice. They didn’t know what to do with their hands. Their fingers rubbed against each other and stretched, like cats trying out their claws.
“What do you want?” she asked. Her hand moved from the black rope to the metal stand it was attached to. If things went the way they were supposed to it’d just be autographs. Try it boys and I’ll leave my mark on you for sure. One of them eyed the research tucked under her arm. She hugged it to her chest and felt her heartbeat tapping on the side of it.
“Give us those papers,” the fat one said.
“If you touch me I’ll scream,” she threatened.
“There’s nobody here you dizzy girl,” the first one said. He pulled out a knife from his belt. The blade was sickeningly long, like an icicle that took all winter to grow.
“What would lumps like you need my research for?”
“We’re not telling you nothing. Last chance. Give it here.” They took a step forward and finally figured out what to do with their hands; they reached out towards Rosamin. She unleashed a scream she’d never known she was capable of. So ear-piercing was the sound that the thugs even took one step back… but then they hurried towards her. Rosamin tried to lift the metal rope stand but realized too late it was cemented to the floor. She had no weapon and one arm was already occupied. The fat one grabbed her shoulder and squeezed. She could feel little pockets of blood in her flesh squeezing and popping. Another second and he would probably break her collarbone. The other one tried to pry her research away with his knife like he was opening an oyster. The blade sliced along her forearm and splashed them all with her blood.
Bolo leapt from his enclosure, stone axe in hand. He bashed the knife wielder on the head and sent him and the blade clattering to the ground. The thugs had apparently assumed the reading Bolo was just another wax figure, as they did not quite know what they were staring at. Bolo took advantage of the confusion and bashed the fat one in the knee with the axe. Rosamin twisted around and bit his arm until he howled and relinquished his grip.
“Run miss!” Bolo shouted. He didn’t have to tell her twice.
“Thank you,” she huffed over her shoulder as she ran from the tail chamber and back into the hallway. The knife thug got back to his feet and chased after her while Bolo occupied the larger man. He gained ground on her quickly; by the time she reached the shadow of the whale’s belly proper he was mere feet behind her. She could hear his breath hissing between his teeth. Rosamin stuffed her research in her blouse as best she could, poured her energy into her thighs and ankles, and jumped towards the tip of the whale’s fin. Without the benefit of adrenaline she never would’ve made it. Her fingers wrapped around its blue plaster tip and held fast. She tried to pull herself up and onto the whale, but the thug grabbed her waist and tried to yank her down. The wires holding the cast aloft bounced and twanged. Chunks of staff from the ceiling fell all around them.
Rosamin did not let go and neither did her pursuer. He tugged again and again. Though the whale was a truly enormous creature, he was as hollow as everything else built for the fair and far lighter than anyone looking at him would suspect. A wire snapped. The whale leaned to the side. Rosamin held fast. Another tug. Another snap. Then the rest of the wires went. The whale and the two floundering creatures grabbed onto its fin collapsed on the ground. A cloud of gray dust rose all around them.
The impact forced the man to release her long enough for her to scramble away. She climbed up on top of the whale’s fin and then onto its back; she heard its thin tissue crinkle under her feet. She nearly lost her balance trying to make her way to its head when her pursuer rocked the whale. He threw himself up to Rosamin’s level and stomped along its backbone. Rosamin turned to look at him when her left foot struck the blowhole and ripped through it. Her leg and then the rest of her body fell into the head of the whale.
“Oohf!” she uttered as she landed flat on her chest; she rolled over and stared at the ray of light through the hole. Fthump fthump fthump fthump. Every step of his rocked the whale. “Lousy no good…” she started, before realizing running was more prudent. The whale’s mouth was wide open and it seemed a far more inviting exit than the other end, so she scrambled to her feet and ran across its tongue. Her pursuer dropped down through the blowhole and landed on his feet. With one jump Rosamin was coughed out by the whale along with the trail of dust from her blouse. She whirled around and pummeled the whale’s upper lip until its smile cracked at the edges. The roof of its mouth collapsed; her pursuer was pelted with more debris and rolled back down its gullet. With only a few moments bought, Rosamin ran down the one hallway left, the one the whale’s other fin pointed down.
It was another branch of industrial wonders, except this time the devices were inventions of foreign nations. None of them were automatic escape route creators, much to her chagrin. A dead end. Nothing but curtains with walls beyond. Bolo seemed strong, but there was no way he could take out both of them. She needed to hide, but where? Every machine looked like it would mangle her in an instant if she tried to stuff herself inside it. Except for…
Something wheeled around of its own accord. Rosamin stared at it, bewildered. She’d seen enough symposium demonstrations and posters to know she was looking at a piece of Transylvanian engineering. She saw a metal torso that appeared to be seated behind a large cabinet. A few game boards were laid out in front of it. Having just seen her first mustachioed, jacket-wearing, orange-eyed machine, she was still rather stunned. It was, in fact, the same unit that so interested Wallace the previous year.
Kpof! It took her picture and examined the image. Since the Vanian was no longer fresh from its secretive factory, it had been relegated to a life of permanent exhibition. It was now a toy for fairs, circuses, and theaters. Its makers kept an eye on it and kept it in the hands of trusted representatives to prevent trade secrets from escaping its cabinet, but they couldn’t do anything to stop it from opening its own cabinet in front of strangers.
The Vanian held out one arm invitingly; the right door of its cabinet swung open. Rosamin saw an empty space large enough for her to occupy. She put her faith in Transylvanian science and crawled into the cabinet. The door swung closed with a gentle click. She had to hold her knees against her chest and keep her head bent down, but it was certainly more comfortable than getting stabbed. She heard machinery quietly ticking and tocking behind the panel and she deliberately forced her own breathing quieter and quieter until the taps and cranks of the Vanian were louder than her. Then she waited, squeezing her injured forearm with her opposite hand.
Mere seconds after the door had swung shut she heard two pairs of slapping footsteps hurry close to her. The wood was thin enough that she could make out their entire conversation.
“You sure she went this way?”
“Yeah. Check the curtains.” She heard the clinking of curtain rings swatted to the side. “What about the savage?”
“He’s out cold. I don’t see her Mitch. You lost her.”
“We don’t get those papers, we don’t get paid. You lost her just as much as me.”
“What’s the big deal with this chink anyway?” If Rosamin had her emission goggles with her she would not have been able to stop herself from bursting out of the cabinet and setting their kneecaps on fire.
“How should I know, I’m no egghead. She’s upsetting the apple cart or something. Quit gabbing. She had to go back out the front. Let’s go.”
The apple cart? She pondered. No. Nobody in the academy would send blade-wielding thugs after me over conflicting research. They’re the academy! They’ve got a hundred names working for them that have each written a hundred books! That’s enough clout to win a presidential race and then use the nation’s budget to build a giant carousel. My results can’t possibly scratch theirs; everyone will just assume I made a mistake. Unless… unless they can’t back it up. And they know it. Simon. Simon’s results don’t hold water. They can plug the holes with pages from all those books, but my research is a big old corkscrew to the hull of their vessel. What could possibly be so important to these people that they’d risk their reputations fabricating research?
When the last sounds of the men were gone the cabinet door swung open. Rosamin emerged and looked the Vanian in its electric eyes. Kpof! It tapped something out in Morse code. Rosamin stammered an apology.
“I-I’m sorry. I don’t know code. Did you know you were saving me? Two taps for yes and one for no if you can understand.”
“You’ve… you’ve met Mr. Dancing Rocks? He… he speaks highly of you.”
“Why did you do this? Oh that’s not a yes or no… urhm… Are you designed to help people?”
“I’ve heard crazy things about you Transylvanian machines. Some people say you’re as alive as anyone else. Are you… alive I mean?”
“Oh. Well thank you for doing what you did anyway. I might have died if not for you.” She ran her hand across its chessboard, thinking of herself as a pawn. She stopped her finger on the queen’s space. How do I get out in front of this before it crashes into the world? Those photographers at the symposium. I need them. I need them to take all the pictures of me they can. The world needs to notice if they stop seeing my face in case those men find me again. The papers love drama. They’ll listen. The academy will get a say every week, but they’ll lend me an ear for at least one. “I have to go now,” she told the Vanian. Kpof! The Vanian extended its metal hand. Rosamin took it in hers and gently shook it. “Friends.” Rosamin backed away slowly, but when she finally turned around she fled from the hall and through the fair’s crowds as fast as she could. She wanted to be surrounded now, not by crowds, but by her friends.
The next few hours were perhaps the busiest of Rosamin’s life. She felt like she was both the postmaster general and the person responsible for responding to all the letters in the world as she dispensed information, watched everyone around her like a hawk guarding its nest, and sent her friends and acquaintances to deliver or pick up anything she needed.
When she returned to the academy she found most of the photographers, and many of the scientists, had left in the wake of the argument. Her friends Janet, Wallace, and Bill had remained to speak with three members of the academy’s board and a handful of others from the snake oil institute. They informed her that her little interruption had rocked the boat so violently that it had capsized. The symposium had not resumed and all the medals were instead presented to their winners in Dilcourt’s office over the course of fifteen minutes. Rosamin was sorry to destroy their moments of glory, but someone had blown hers up first.
Before they could tell her what they’d been cooking up, Rosamin shouted over all of them and explained what the preoccupied scientists hadn’t noticed: the blood on her arm and the light coat of artificial blue whale dust covering her shoulders, arms, and legs. When she pointed it out she heard a few mumbled instances of well now that you mention it… They gasped at the news of her attack. They glanced at each other when she told them about the Natural American put on display like a zoo animal. Their mouths were either covered by their hands or hanging open when she told them how the mechanical Vanian had saved her and she had overheard her attackers seemingly suggest the academy was behind the impromptu assault. Wallace looked especially stony-eyed upon hearing about the Vanian.
Rosamin knew the arguments would start almost immediately. Even the people on her side could hardly believe anyone at their institution would hire some muscle to rip the research out of a peer’s hands. She preempted all that talk by asking Wallace and Bill to run to the fair and check the condition of the brave Bolo. Wallace went eagerly, with Bill following behind like a dog wondering if there was an invisible leash around his neck.
“Please,” Rosamin asked, like she was begging god for a glass of water, “someone tell me what’s going on.” The rest of the group escorted her back inside the university, to the office of one of the board members in the group. She was concerned to see her lock the door once they were all inside. Janet gave Tycho a signal and the big ape closed the curtains as well. Lucille Roquin, a stern woman in her fifties who never wore a color other than deep blue, gave the best summary she could of the information they’d pieced together while she was gone.
“It seems some weeks ago,” she started, “the board held a vote without several members being present. It’s technically allowed as long as more than half the members are there, but there’s always been the assumption that that technicality would only be used should members fail to show up when a meeting is called. We,” she pointed to herself and the two other members there, Professor Gerry ‘Goose’ Tell, a phrenologist, and Dr. Hannah Cancheck, a physicist, “somehow missed our invitations. Strom and the other members voted to throw the academy’s support behind Dr. Nielson’s research and his treatment proposals. Though they haven’t said as much explicitly, it is our opinion they’ve formed some sort of an alliance with an investor or investors who are eager to see results like Dr. Nielson’s published and accepted.”
“That’s insane! They’d be playing tiddlywinks with the city’s health! They might as well throw giant firecrackers down into the streets! Is the academy that desperate for money? I thought being associated with these snake oil salesmen was enough to keep us going for years,” Rosamin commented. The folks from the oil institute blushed, a reaction made less endearing by the presence of the fresh polished medals hanging around their necks.
“The Academy is only desperate for funds in the sense that Dilcourt and a few others are desperate for larger homes and an extra autowagon,” Lucille said.
“So who are these investors?” Rosamin asked.
“We don’t know who they are,” Janet said, “but I’d bet my life they’re European. British and French probably.”
“Because of the Lamarckey Simon was going on about?” Rosamin asked. “All this nonsense about other races having volatile tempers and weaker constitutions?”
“Precisely,” Goose confirmed. “We need to act fast if we’re going to do something about it.”
“I’m all for that,” Rosamin said. “Let’s do it! What are we doing? How do we overthrow Dilcourt?”
“That’s not an option,” Lucille said. “What they’ve done, on its face anyway, is perfectly legal. They haven’t even technically broken the academy’s own rules. We can try to gather evidence of wrongdoing, but I don’t know how long that will take. The city could be in the middle of a racial quarantine by the time we find anything and that’s if we ever do.”
“So what are we to do?”
“We need to win the publicity war.”
“So let’s get those photographers back in here,” Rosamin suggested. She didn’t understand why they weren’t milling about at that very moment.
“We won’t be able to win over the public in our current situation,” Lucille explained. “The rest of the board has plenty of connections with the papers. Dr. Columbus’ brother owns the Two York Times! We’ve decided that if we’re to have any chance of getting ahead of this, there are only two fronts we can fight the battle on. The first is having the snake oil institute repeat your experiments and confirm your conclusions. They can then run an information campaign of their own.” The oil folks nodded their heads in agreement. “The second is to seek the approval of a scientific authority even greater than the academy.”
“The National Board of Science?” Rosamin asked.
“No. We’re thinking bigger. Transylvania. We want to send you to Transylvania.”
Rosamin would’ve jumped at the chance in any other situation. She’d dreamed of those gothic towers and their lightning rods since she was a girl. Machines like the Vanian manning storefronts. Secret laboratories where the darkest miracles of science lay abandoned but preserved for study. Analytical Engines that could predict the future. A place where research and ambition fused and became legends and folktales to the rest of the world. She questioned the dignity of going to such a place in search of favors with nothing to offer them in return.
“Why would they help us?” she asked breathlessly.
“The academy assigns annual ambassadors to Europe,” Janet reminded her. “Normally it’s for symbolic gestures of friendship. Handshakes and smiles. This time we’ll be going with a mission: to convince the Transylvanian Academy of Science to come out in support of your findings Rosamin. Assuming of course they and the oil institute independently confirm your results.”
“Oh they will,” Rosamin said. Of that she was certain. “What do you mean we? Are you coming along Janet?” She didn’t intend for anyone to hear her so giddy, but the idea of an expedition with Janet Goodmoss that was even marginally science-related, to Transylvania no less, was thrilling enough to cause her to explode without even a touch of the palpitations in her.
“The images have determined the ambassadors,” Lucille claimed. “The four of you were photographed wearing those masks of yours dozens of times. If any picture comes out of today not showing Simon or Dilcourt, it will show the four of you. So, all four of you are going.”
“Five, with Tycho acting as my escort,” Janet said.
“We didn’t expect you to show up saying you’d been attacked, but it seems more prudent than ever to have all of you go. You can watch out for each other should anyone try again,” Lucille added.
“Bill? Bill agreed to go and… help protect us? Are you sure he understood you?” Rosamin asked. She could hardly see Bill asking a waiter to take his food back, let alone telling a knife-wielding lunatic to keep walking.
“Bill needs some time out of the city anyway. I’m sure he’s tired of people blaming the explosions on him not judging the temperature correctly,” Janet said.
“You’re sure?” Rosamin asked with one eyebrow raised so high she could’ve dusted the ceiling with it.
“He took some convincing,” Janet admitted, “but sometimes you just have to put your foot down with him so he’ll scurry in the right direction. When it comes to Wallace he said he would need to send a telegram to his employers, but guessed that they would not only let him take the impromptu trip with us, but would also provide a stipend for food and lodging. They’re a machining company, so he thinks they’ll jump at the chance to have one of their agents invited to the machine capitol of the world.”
“That’s wonderful. This is… I’ll need to… when? When are we leaving?” Rosamin asked, calming her tongue so it wouldn’t tie itself in a knot.
“Seeing as I’ve called a sudden meeting of the board and approved you as the ambassadors without checking to see if Dilcourt and the others got their invitations… immediately. Tonight,” Lucille said. “We’ll put you four on a ship this evening before anyone’s the wiser. You’ll need to leave your research with the snake oil institute. I assume you can recreate your thesis from memory during your trip so you have something to present the Vanians?”
“Yes,” Rosamin assured. If she had to trust anyone in the academy with her papers other than Janet, she was glad it was the honorable serpent farmers. If you can’t trust the snake oil salesmen, then who can you trust? “I’ll need to pick up my things from my hotel. I should buy a travel kit as well and perhaps a few changes of clothes.”
“Tycho will go with you,” Janet said and took a seat. Her bent back told Rosamin she’d done more than her share of walking today. Janet tilted her head and the ape responded by bending his head down to her. She whispered something in his big, tan, fleshy ear. Tycho stood up and offered Rosamin his arm. She took it.
“What did you whisper to him?” she asked Janet on her way out.
“Nothing dear,” Janet dismissed. “Just monkey business.”
Rosamin and Tycho left the university and found an open-topped horse cart willing to take them to the hotel. All the autowagon taxis insisted the ape would not fit, but seemed more concerned with the possibility of him shedding. Once there, Rosamin tossed all her belongings into her bag and hammered at the latch until it stayed closed. Leaving took a bit longer than she expected, thanks to the meddling of the hotel owner. He kept telling her how much he regretted her early departure and that it would mean the world to him if she would accept one of his luxury rooms instead. He only gave up after ten no thank you’s and one you’re in my way. It might have taken more if he wasn’t unsettled by the ochre-eyed stare of the sasquatch every time he opened his mouth. He started to ask if he could at least carry her bag for her, but then Tycho took it and nudged the man aside with a palm bigger than his face.
As they left the World’s Fair Hotel behind and went in search of travel kits, Rosamin checked her bag to make sure the emission goggles were there. She’d never wanted them weaponized but she had the feeling they would fill that role in her near future. She was now living in a world where being right simply wasn’t enough and being herself was too much for some to handle.
Continued in Part Three