The Ecto Express pulled into a tiny train station with only two sets of tracks, one coming and one going. When the four scientists and the sasquatch disembarked they were able to see it in its full glory. Huge trees threatened to crowd the tracks out of existence; there was evidence of hastily chopped stumps under the slats of each set of tracks. Branches crawled over the roof of the station. Drooping, lumpy, gray willows lined the sides, shouldering each other so closely that they resembled moist cavern walls.
There was a large map on the wall outside the station that indicated all the nearby travel options. The map was hardly ever needed; people didn’t have too much trouble switching from the coming line and onto the going line. A thick vine had split twenty times on its crawl across the map so that it looked like a green river. Wallace gently lifted it off the surface, coiled it around his arm like a rope, and then tossed it into the bushes at the side of the building.
“There’s our exit,” he said, dropping his finger on a small chink in the map’s stone wall. “Once we reach the next station we can make straight for the coast.”
“You don’t see any wanted posters around do you?” Bill asked.
“Don’t be such a harvest mouse,” Rosamin teased. “We’re wanted for theft, not murder.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say that so loud,” Bill hissed. His eyes darted around in search of eavesdroppers. He was distracted from his paranoia by Tycho, who moved over to the map and pressed a nail against a tiny pictogram splashing about in a painted river. The ape looked at Janet and made a questioning sign with his free hand.
“That is a plesiosaur,” Janet explained to him. “One of the few ancient reptiles to survive to the modern age. They were thought extinct until a small population was discovered in Loch Ness, a Scottish body of freshwater.” Tycho signed another question. “No dear, we don’t eat them. They’ve been bred to ride. They’re as good as boats, sometimes better.”
“I’ve never had the pleasure of taking a lochtile,” Rosamin mentioned. “It’s a shame they’re not our next step. I’ve already had so many firsts these past weeks.”
“According to the map there’s a place where you can rent one nearby,” Bill said. “It looks like they can take you towards the southernmost exit in… Carolina.”
“They’re swimming speed doesn’t quite match a locomotive,” Wallace said sarcastically.
“Oh I know,” Bill said. “Part of me wants to stay in the hollow for a while. I admit now that we’re off the train I’m fascinated by the weather down here. I’m certain my predictive model would be utterly useless in these parts. Proserpine is an entirely different animal. It’s exciting. The slightest breeze is a complete mystery. There could be a downpour minutes away and I’d have less clue than a weathervane.”
“And this excites you Bill?” Rosamin asked.
“Well yes,” he answered. “Isn’t unraveling the mystery why we do what we do?”
“I’m sure the medals, newspaper pieces, and publishing deals have nothing to do with it,” Wallace said. The others hadn’t expected such harsh words out of him. The Natural American quickly changed the subject. “The schedule says the next train isn’t due for another two hours. We’ll have to find some place to sit and wait.”
They found their place on a bench along one of the outer walls. They could’ve waited inside, but the station was quite stuffy and it was growing busier by the minute as people in carriages came in from a dirt road. Janet wondered aloud where they were coming from. Wallace, whose geological expertise afforded him some knowledge about the economic status of the few hollows in North America, told her it was likely the small towns in the southern end of the hollow had lucrative mining industries. The people who came and went on the coming and going lines were likely mineral scouts and land dealers checking up on their product.
“How do you know they’re not the miners?” Bill asked naïvely.
“Miners can’t afford train tickets,” Wallace explained. “It’s easier to drop into a hole than climb out of one.”
“What do they mine down here?” Rosamin asked.
“Magmatic lodestones and other metamorphic ores.”
“What’s the practical use of such things?”
“Phlogiston is metamorphic and it can power anything from lamps to autowagons. Its sale price these days is higher than oil and coal because of the efficiency with which it burns. A forty pound block can keep a wagon going nonstop for two weeks.” They heard a piercing whistle. The going line was arriving. In just a few minutes the train would be refueled, restocked, and ready to take passengers. They were all happy to see a distinct lack of flashy lettering on the new train’s side.
“I should warn you now dear,” Janet told Tycho. “If this one doesn’t allow pets you may have to grab hold of a handle as it departs and ride on the outside.” He signed a response and Janet smirked.
“What did he say?” Rosamin asked.
“He said he doesn’t like riding with smelly humans anyway,” she translated. More people crowded onto the platform and blocked their view of the surroundings. The four went quiet and absorbed the common chatter to get a sense of the hollow-dwellers. They talked mostly like they were grains of sand in an hourglass, complaining about the endless delays they’d suffered, how many times they’d traveled back and forth, and how every train was always so crowded. By all rights the station should have been larger and better kept, but the people had to keep coming no matter how inadequate it was because it was the only exit in the state. Digging another would be an effort so significant it would require a presidential decree.
“I wonder, do you think the president has been alerted to the combustion issue in Two York?” Wallace asked after he tired of listening to the chatter. The train whistled again.
“Boarding will begin in five minutes!” the station manager shouted.
“Someone must have mentioned it to him,” Janet said, “but unless the disease spreads significantly outside the city it will remain the responsibility of the Two York governor.”
“In my land we wouldn’t allocate responsibility based on location,” Wallace said. “Our leaders are responsible for their people. The land is just the land.”
“So how would the N.T.A handle an epidemic such as this?” Bill asked. Wallace rubbed his chin and thought about it.
“For starters I don’t believe my countrymen would organize a massive conspiracy to hide the facts of the disease as part of efforts to simultaneously demonize foreigners and gain a share in their fortunes.”
“Well that’s a given,” Rosamin said with a smile.
“We would probably start with a campaign to discourage travel for a while. As a culture we’re often on the move; I imagine a contagion would quite enjoy the free transportation.”
“Did your family move around a lot?” Bill asked.
“My tribe was my family and my tribe didn’t so much move as change. People came and went from my life as they came and went from cities, to towns, to countryside, and back again. When I was eight I moved on as well. I found new homes and new families at thirteen, seventeen, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-one…”
“All the way up to now, where you can call Tycho your brother,” Rosamin said.
“As long as he doesn’t mind having a smelly human on his family tree.” Tycho clapped his hands softly, which Wallace interpreted as an appreciative chuckle. “If people started exploding in the tribes…” Baukf! Everyone’s head turned toward the terrible popping sound, like an oven door forced off its hinges by the heat. There came two more pops and then a roar of fire. The scientists felt the wave of heat before they saw orange swells of flame streaming out of the locomotive’s windows.
“Fire! Fire!” the station manager cried. The crowd further concentrated itself like tadpoles in a drying puddle in order to back away from the flames. The manager disappeared and reappeared, dragging a giant copper extinguisher and a crate of extinguishing soda grenades. He jammed a metal spike into the top of the extinguisher and aimed the hose. Pressurized water shot out of it and over the flaming engine.
Wallace shouldered his way through the crowd, ran up to the crate, and grabbed one of the reddish glass grenades from its straw bedding. He turned and shouted at the station manager, who almost sprayed him with the extinguisher in response.
“Aim at the base of the flames!” he shouted. Then he hurled the grenade through the window of the locomotive. It smashed on the floor and released a grayish cloud of dousing chemicals. That weakened the heat enough to embolden a few more of the people on the platform. They started passing out grenades and tossing them wherever fire remained. Rosamin joined in; she took a grenade, slipped her shoes off, and ran around to the train’s opposite side. After she chucked her grenade she looked behind her at the tree line to see if the fire was spreading to the vegetation. It wasn’t, but she thought she caught a glimpse of someone fleeing into the bushes. His job done for the moment, Warclaw got himself lost in the flora to avoid detection. It was amazing what you could do just by plopping a little too much phlogiston into a furnace.
When the grenades were depleted and the extinguisher dry, the crowd had successfully put out the fire in its entirety. Alas, it had already been too late one moment after the first explosion. When the station manager pulled his head out from his examination of the engine his face was covered in soot and sweat. He informed everyone that repairs would be required and that said repairs would likely take several days at least. For now they were all trapped in Proserpine Hollow.
The crowd groaned and whined. The four scientists were quietest. It was beginning to feel like a powerful force was pushing them away from the coast and away from their diplomatic visit. Thanks to its remoteness, the station did not even have telegraph wires. They received all their scheduling information from a nearby town, a town that most of the dejected crowd began to retreat towards.
“We should find someone charitable and catch a ride with them,” Bill said as he gathered up their bags. Tycho walked through their conversation and circled the pictogram of the plesiosaur on the map with the tip of his finger.
“I think Tycho has the right idea,” Wallace said.
The walk to the riverside was several miles; it would have been far more pleasant if they weren’t carrying bags the entire time. They followed the dirt road for a while, carriages passing them, until they reached several foot trails that wiggled off into the distance, like spider web spokes in the wind. A hand-painted sign guided them towards the river, the P in Plesiosaur rentals represented by a long blue reptilian neck curving back on itself.
The trees around them became even thicker. Pale yellow daffodils swayed in the breeze. The grass just off the path was nearly knee-high until they reached the riverbank. What they found was quaint and heartening. The rental building was small, little more than a shed really. Past it there was a much larger building; it was a half-submerged set of stables and docks for the animals and boats that were up for rent. Several carriages were parked in the dirt. The families that owned them were busy paddling around in the slow shallow part of the river in paddleboats. They could hear children laughing.
A row of painted canoes were turned upside down on the thick shore mud. One of them was propped up by a stick. A big black and white dog with a face like a cigar butt and an under bite sat in the boat’s shade. It barked at the four scientists and the ape as they approached just once, like a bell ringing when a customer enters a shop. A man’s face appeared in the rental shack window. He leaned forward and put his elbows on the counter.
“What can I do for you folks this fine evening?” he asked. His voice whistled through a crack in one of his teeth that Wallace could’ve sworn looked exactly like the crevice entrance to Proserpine Hollow. They guessed his proximity to the train station had him seeing all sorts of colorful people, because he didn’t bat an eye at the sasquatch carrying the primatologist.
“We’re looking to make it to the southern exit,” Janet said. “Is there any chance a lochtile can take us that far?” The man scratched his head.
“Not directly ma’am. Our animals are trained to go as far as Potter’s Plot. There’s another rental place down there run by my cousin Dirk. If you get off there one of his people will bring my animal back and then they’ll give you another one.”
“How long would it take us to get to the southern exit?”
“That depends on the animals, but on average I’d say it’s about three days. You can’t run them all day because they need to make shore and sleep.”
“What about feeding them?”
“They feed themselves ma’am. It’s not hard for them to just snag fish on the way downriver.”
“They’re not dangerous are they?” Bill asked. “What I mean to ask is… they don’t decide on a whim to submerge with people on their backs do they?”
“No sir,” the man whistled. “We take pride in our training. We guarantee the only way your belongings will get soaked is if you drop them in.”
“Do you sell food here? For the journey?” Wallace asked.
“I can rent you a campfire stove with canned meats, fruits, and vegetables,” the man offered. He reached under the counter and pulled up a few tins: Arty’s artichoke hearts in juice, sweet crayfish in tomato sauce, and Sugary Bounty peaches.
“We’ll need more than that for three days,” Wallace said. “Do you have fishing poles?”
“Yes sir!” He brought out two rods and reels.
“Yes sir!” The excitable man sounded like an auctioneer hearing an extra zero on every bid. He pulled out a tiny bucket full of worms. “The saddlebags can hold all of your goods on the way. We can strap your other bags to the back.” Wallace brought out his wallet and started making arrangements with the man. When payment had been made he happily ushered them down the bank and into the partially submerged stables.
The building was damp but clean, and smelled of shed reptile skins and moss. Several lochtile skins were draped over the rafters like serpentine ghosts. One of them had been written on with charcoal to make a banner sign that read We’re better than boats!
“Sadie!” the man shouted down the row of slips. “Sadie! Get over here girl!”
“Hold your mudpuppies!” a woman shouted back. She stuck her head out of a slip, her long wet hair slapping against the wood. “What do you want Richie?”
“Get up here. We got customers. They’re practically buying us out. We should name a lochie after this fella.” Richie turned to Wallace. “What’s your name?”
“We’re going to name one of the next eggs Wally. I’ve made up my mind.” Sadie grunted like she was lifting a hay bale and pulled herself out of the water. The strange rubbery garment she wore was so full of liquid that she looked like a hot water bottle that had sprung five leaks. She stomped her way over to them, speeding up as she shed weight.
“Which one are we giving them?” she asked.
“I’d like to inspect the animals if you don’t mind,” Wallace said.
“Well that’s completely pointless because they’re all wonderful and beautiful,” Sadie said, “but if it’ll make you feel better. Come on.” She turned around and marched down the line. By the time they reached the first animal she’d finally stopped dripping.
Bill took a step back at the sight of it, but the others moved closer. The animal’s front flippers rested on a wooden scum-covered ramp; the back pair waved gently back and forth in the water. Its body was as long as two autowagons, not counting the long drooping neck. Its sleepy moist eyes, amber-orange in color, softened the carnivorous image implied by its long peg-like teeth. Its smooth hide was dark blue with pale green stripes that looked like an aurora hiding behind sleety clouds. It eyed the scientists placidly.
“This here is Phyllis,” Sadie said. At the sound of her name Phyllis moved her head over to her trainer, who petted her snout. “She’s a bit on the old side but she’s the biggest we got. We usually don’t get parties of five wanting a lochtile. Usually it’s campers or married folks looking for some peace out on the water.”
“She know all the basic commands?” Wallace asked.
“She sure does. We’ve got her trained up in three different ways on account of the different terms the northerners use.”
“Oh yes. Phyllis here is sixty-seven years old.”
“Sixty-seven?” Bill gasped. “How long do they live?”
“My pa had one that made it all the way to 162,” Richie crowed. “He lived through the civil war, even had a few musket balls stuck in his flesh.”
“Your father or the lochtile?”
“Both of them come to think of it.” The conversation stopped when they heard a violent thrashing. They all looked down to the end of the stables and saw a spray of water. The building rattled and the water became choppier. Phyllis stuck her head out over the floor and looked towards the noise as well. They saw ten more lochtile heads peek out and stare at the slip on the end. Eooorunk! Eeeernk! The animal scream made their hair stand on end. Eventually the thrashing stopped and everything calmed down.
“What was that?” Bill asked like he wanted the name of the phantom haunting the stables.
“That’s… a lochie that needs more tender loving than we can give it,” Sadie said sadly. “He’s been through a lot and he’s not really fit to rent.”
“Then we won’t rent him,” Wallace said, eager to get on the river. He had underestimated the irritation of traveling in a group. Up until now he’d basically been alone on the roads and rivers between the N.T.A. and the U.C.A. There was a diorama growing in the back of his head that showed how much further ahead he’d be if he was on his own. “Let’s saddle Phyllis up.”
“Just a second Mr. Wallace,” Richie said. “First we have to go look at the nests so you can pick out the egg we’re going to name after you.” Wallace would have protested if the other three hadn’t been giddy at the opportunity to see the eggs. He held his tongue while they walked back to some caloric-sink chests. Under the lids sat beds of dried reeds and sand with clutches of ten to twenty blue-speckled eggs. Several of the eggs already had names written on their shells in the same charcoal black on the skin-banner: Georgia Peach, Bubbler, Diamond, Lacey, Lizardo… When his colleagues were done cradling them in their arms and listening to the tiny swirls in the yolky medium, Wallace picked a blank one at random and rested his finger on it. Richie grabbed the charcoal pencil and scrawled W A L L Y across it, slowly pronouncing each letter as he wrote them.
“Now let’s saddle Phyllis up,” Wallace begged. Everyone agreed. Sadie and Richie walked down the sides of Phyllis’ stall and brought down a giant saddle suspended from the ceiling by ropes. The saddle had several wood-backed leather seats on it, with large saddlebags on the side sealed by big silver buttons. They attached a set of reins and a bridle to Phyllis’ head. Sadie and Richie helped the four scientists and ape board the lochtile and get settled into their seats. They pulled on two cords, pulling the slatted back wall up like a curtain.
“Back up Phyllis,” Wallace instructed the lochtile. He tugged lightly on the reins three times. The lochtile placed her flat forehead on the dock and pushed her whole body backward. Once free of her slip she gracefully glided around until she faced downriver. Sadie and Richie waved goodbye and shouted last minute tips as Phyllis started paddling away.
“You’ll know when you get to Dirk’s because he’s got a big sign!”
“Don’t keep her out after dark!” Sadie joked, knowing full well Proserpine had no horizon to set under.
“Make sure you have fun! You’re not doing it right if you don’t!” In a few minutes the rental building was gone, replaced by the gently rolling river. The sounds of the cavern finally struck them. Before, they’d been blocked out by the rattle of the train, the complaints of agitated travelers, and the crackling of fire. Now they could close their eyes and hear the biggest echoes they’d ever heard: the rustle of leaves striking the stone, the popping of water on rocks bouncing around the hollow, and Phyllis’s heavy breathing coming and going like tides.
Warclaw waited about half an hour after their departure before he approached the lochtile rentals. The dog did its duty and barked once. Richie’s face appeared. He wasn’t quite as quick to welcome Warclaw as he was still riding high on the big sale. He sobered up when Warclaw slammed some money down on the counter.
“What can I do for you?”
“I need a lochtile and some food.”
“The river sure is busy today. Is there some big party down the way I don’t know about?”
“Take me to the animals.”
“Yes sir.” Richie grabbed him some food tins and walked him down to the stables. Sadie was busy making one of the reptiles perform neck tricks in exchange for bluegills. Eeeeeeernk! the animal blurted when she told it to speak. She tossed a sparkling indigo fish into its mouth; its neck moved in waves to gently maneuver the fish down its gullet. “Sadie, quit playing with Teddy. We’re getting him out on the river with this fine gentleman.”
“Is he military trained?” Warclaw asked. Sadie grabbed Teddy’s head and stroked the smooth scaly groove between his eyes.
“No,” she said. “Teddy’s the biggest softie we got. If there was a skeeter on him he’d just give it a bib instead of swatting it.”
“We don’t really have military ones,” Richie said. “These animals are just for tourists; we try and make them as gentle as can be. We get children around here.” Eeeeeeerunk! The building shook. Warclaw’s eyes were drawn down the line.
“That one sounds tough,” he said.
“That’s Muzzle. He actually was military at one time, but we don’t rent him. He’s too aggressive. Poor thing’s been through a lot.”
“Define a lot.”
“He was tortured as a hatchling,” Sadie interjected. She didn’t care for the casual tone of his inquiry. “He’s got scars all down the back of his neck. I can’t imagine why they did that to him.”
“I don’t need to imagine, I know,” Warclaw said. “I ran with a lochtile river patrol for a while. If you cut the necks when they’re young it weakens the muscles and makes the neck hang lower. When its neck is closer to the water its profile is harder to make out; it makes them better at sneaking up on unsuspecting foes.”
“That’s horrible,” Sadie said, hoping the world ‘horrible’ would fly into Warclaw’s mouth and burrow into his gums like a canker sore.
“Show him to me,” the sweeper demanded.
“You’re not listening sir; all that trauma has made him unavailable,” Sadie barked. Warclaw pulled his gun. She pushed Teddy’s head back into his slip so he wasn’t in danger and then glued her mouth shut.
“I paid for a lochtile, so I get the pick of the litter. I want to look at Muzzle. March.” Sadie and Richie slowly turned around and walked him to the last slip. They passed through a waist-high gate and pushed aside some rope netting. The rope cast a shadowy grid over the entire slip and made it look like a cage, an image reinforced by the large collar and chains that held Muzzle in place.
A guttural growl rumbled through Muzzle’s drooping neck at the sight of them. True to his name, he had a leather muzzle wrapped around his snout and secured with metal wire stitching. The scars on the back of his neck were whitish and marbled with even paler scratches and bubbles that looked like old places of infection. He was much smaller than the others and only looked capable of carrying a single rider. Muzzle thrashed against his collar; his tail whipped up into the air and slammed against a wall.
“You two are something, talking about animal cruelty when you’ve got him locked up like a prisoner. He’s supposed to be out on the river proving himself. I’m rescuing him from you. Get up against the wall there.” He poked them in the shoulders with his gun barrel until they put their hands on the back wall. Then he approached Muzzle.
The animal thrashed again and pulled his head against his collarbone. He growled into the water, creating a froth of bubbles. Warclaw jumped down onto the ramp, splashing water everywhere. Muzzle blinked the water away but before he could finish Warclaw had the animal’s head trapped under his elbow. A regular lochtile had enough neck strength to toss him into the ceiling, but he knew exactly how to manipulate the animal’s weakened body. He grabbed the buttons on the back of the muzzle and snapped them off. The metal and leather contraption hit the water, rolled down the ramp, and sank out of sight.
When Warclaw released his head Muzzle snapped at him. The sweeper dodged the bite and brought the wooden grip of his revolver straight down on the animal’s parietal eye, a delicate and light-sensitive scale between its real eyes. The blow sent waves of pain down the animal’s neck. Warclaw stomped on the dry edge of the ramp twice: thunk thunk! Muzzle recognized the old command, the old order for him to surrender his will. The lochtile lowered his head onto the wood.
“That’s a good boy,” Warclaw crooned. He looked around. When his eyes hit the ceiling he saw Muzzle’s saddle; it hadn’t been used in so long that there was an abandoned wasp nest stuck to the side. He could still see the military emblems pressed into the leather though. From those he could tell Muzzle wasn’t just a scout; he was a brawler. Three tally marks near the front meant the lochtile had sunken three boats. Two on the back meant it had killed two enemy lochtiles. “You two get over here and saddle him.”
“You’re crazy,” Richie said. “He’ll kill us faster than your gun.” Warclaw stomped on the wood twice more and slid the tip of his boot around Muzzle’s snout.
“Now he won’t. Get to work.” The two nervously moved along the sides of the slip and started lowering the saddle into place. They made sure it wasn’t too tight; it wasn’t Muzzle’s fault after all. “Hurry up. What am I paying you for?”
“No egg for you,” Sadie muttered.
“What did you just say?”
“If the noises leaking out of your trap were nothing then I’m a fat squaw on an ostrich. What did you say?”
“She said no egg for you,” Richie said so she wouldn’t have to.
“The hell does that mean?”
“Normally we name eggs after our good customers.”
“Is that so? Did the last group through here get an egg?”
“You would’ve gotten one too if you weren’t waving that gun around,” Sadie said venomously.
“What did you name the last one?” They didn’t answer right away. He aimed at Sadie’s thigh. “What did you name it?”
“Wally,” Richie told him.
“How’d I know it was the goddamn Indian? Naming your animals after goddamn squatters. The only reason they know what a lochtile is is that we brought them over. Where is the little fella?” Warclaw spun around looking for a nest. “Don’t move.” He left the slip and found the chests. He loomed over the fragile eggs like a snake ready to swallow them whole, checking names: Sampson, Fin-fin-fumble, Ringmaster… Wally.
“No!” Sadie cried. Both the lochtile trainers wept. They did their best to wipe their tears away when Warclaw reentered the slip. He grabbed a rag hanging out of Richie’s pocket and used it to wipe the yellow slime from the tip of his gun. After he holstered the weapon he ordered them out of the way. He hopped onto Muzzle and ordered the animal to dive. It obeyed and resurfaced out on the river.
Warclaw was soaking wet, but the constant rays of Proserpine kept the water relatively warm. He wanted to get used to the water again, because when he went for Rosamin he knew to do it from below. Strangely, nobody ever seemed to look towards hell for signs of a threat.
Richie and Sadie cleaned Wally’s shattered shell out of the hutch. The stain the egg juice left on the wood slats looked to them like a pool of drying blood. They didn’t understand why folks like that had to bring their violence down into Proserpine Hollow. When they were finished Sadie moved to the other side of the building and pulled a pigeon out of a bird house on the wall.
“What are you doing?” Richie asked as he watched her scribble a message on a piece of paper and tie it around the bird’s ankle.
“Sending a message to Dirk,” she said. “The law will be waiting for that bastard when he gets to Potter’s Plot.” She stormed outside and tossed the pigeon into the air. The bird flapped loudly and disappeared over the rolling tops of the willows. She could at least take solace in the fact that the police down at Potter’s Plot took every criminal act very seriously; they didn’t have much else to do in that strange obsessed town.
Dear Mr. Senator Landon Brickbroke,
I am writing this letter to you today as a concerned citizen of our great colony Massachusetts Bay. My tightening grip on this pen helps keep my poor old hands from trembling with fear. You see, I cannot stop imagining the terrible events that could soon reach our borders.
The trouble is in our near neighbor Two York. I know the senates of the colonies hold all sorts of secret meetings (there’s no use in denying it Mr. Senator), and I’m sure that in at least one of these meetings you’ve come abreast of a more direct version of the rumors I myself have encountered as a colony employee.
Perhaps I should first explain how I came by this startling information that is clearly meant to be kept a secret between the ruffled shirts and powdered wigs of upper government and highest society. I have worked, with all my heart, in the Pelicanville post office for twenty-three years come October. That’ll be twenty-three years I’ve had to see communications of all sorts cross my desk. Back when there was a war on I was required to check the contents of the mail for coded enemy messages and I confess I haven’t dropped the spying habit since then.
I know, as you know, there is talk of the Modest Proposal being voted on in Second York City. I know this from a letter sent by a pig farmer outside the city to his cousin here in Massachusetts Bay where he expressed his worry that the meat of babes would cut into the market for back bacon and pigs’ ears.
In my own research since then I’ve come to the conclusion that the Proposal is being touted as a way to treat the city’s illness of volcanic palpitations. The poorer classes, which contain a high proportion of the lesser races exhibiting high vulnerabilities to the disease, will elect to remove themselves from the city by selling their future to restauranteurs and canners.
This evil cannot be allowed to come to pass, and if it does come to pass in our neighbor I will resign my post and come to live outside your home in endless protest to make sure it does not reach Massachusetts Bay.
The lesser races cannot be blamed for this plague any more than you can blame a cat for sleeping in the sun. Their vulnerabilities make them more deserving of our mercy and compassion, not less. This issue is weighing on all our minds; I know this despite nearly everyone’s inability to discuss it openly.
Just the other day my preacher spoke of it without mentioning it directly. He compared the consumption of human flesh to pagan human sacrifices and I must say I agree wholeheartedly. A babe on a plate does not mean a fruitful harvest the next year and it does not mean a season free of disease.
I’ll be counting on you Mr. Senator to, as a representative of this humble colony employee and her family, to vote against any and all measures that come before the Massachusetts Bay senate that involve the murder, do not be fooled with economic or biological rhetoric into thinking it is not such, of babes or young children for consumption or any other purpose.
Mrs. Gwendy Sarah Abraham
To Raymond Key,
Ray pal you’ve got to keep up with the numbers. These are numbers like we haven’t seen in ages. These are fear numbers, panic numbers. I’m seeing so many small booms it’s like bombs are being flung at the city from a fence of catapults surrounding us. Things you’d never suspect are blowing up because of this disease. For every paying customer who blows his stack there are a hundred more who are running out to spend the piggy bank on the precaution of the week. I want you in on this. You’re near a lot of the producers down there in Penny, so you’ll be my guy for the rest of this ‘crisis’.
All the money we’re about to make comes in two flavors: leakies and basics. The bigger money is in the leakies because they won’t be sticking around once this blowing up blows over. I call them that because the logic behind them doesn’t exactly hold water. I’ve got three leaky manufacturers for you to track down and hand our money off to. We can still get in on their ground floors before they’re scraping the firmament.
I want you to find Roger Scoria in Philly and invest 2,000 with him. He’s got a scheme called ‘cold fuses’. The idea is a special kind of twine that can be chilled and then wrapped around your limbs at night. If you’ve got the palpitations the fuse cools you down and if that’s not enough it ignites when your temperature gets too high and starts hissing; that way anybody around you has fair warning to skedaddle. It doesn’t seem like the cold part does anything, but the noise works and apparently that’s good enough because their first run is already out of stock.
Then you’re going to Allentown to meet up with Jim Zucklin. His racket is mineral-loaded milk that’s supposed to reduce combustibility. He’s not allowed to label it as medicinal yet, but as soon as he gets a snake oil supplier and starts putting one drop of garter juice in each bottle he will be. Give him 1,500 to put in his facility.
Your last stop for the leakies is Reading, where Henrietta Ludteach, some engineer broad, is making vacuum helmets that suck out extra caloric. Sounds like an easy way to suffocate to me but if folks want to be blue in the face instead of red that’s no business of mine. Vacuum helmets are a business of mine. The broad needs 3,000 for research. Give it to her. Good rule of thumb for leakies is that if they’re shiny and have a lab coat standing next to them they’ll sell the best.
Next up are the basics; I don’t really need to tell you where to go for this stuff since I trust your judgement. You’ve been working Penny long enough to marry her. I want at least 5,000 in the anti-fever snake oils. We’re already having shortages of that. People are going to be walking around here sucking on garters like pacifiers in no time.
Put 800 in anything else anti-fever.
Put 1,200 in anybody shipping ice.
Don’t screw this up Ray. I want returns in six months before the whole city explodes. If not I’m going to show up there with singed hair asking what took you so long.
To you damn fools at the board of health,
I don’t know why I’m bothering writing this since it’s obvious none of you can read. Either that or you don’t get newspapers at any of your fancy pants universities. Let me get you caught up. Micks are exploding! They’re blowing up like volcanoes and starting fires and taking innocent people with them to Hell and you’re sitting there not doing a damn thing about it.
The Academy people have already proved it; I saw the write-up myself. Where’s your two cents? I got three kids and we’re stuck with a mick neighbor on one side and blacks on the other. Every day when they walk to school they’re in danger.
Get off your asses and support the Modest Proposal! Those dumb micks will sell their future for liquor in no time flat and then we won’t have to hand out Irish wanted posters to all the fire departments! They call it modest for a reason; it doesn’t force anybody to do anything they don’t want to do. If you wait too long we’re going to be stuck with options that need force. Not that I’m afraid to use it! I fought for my country and I’ll be damned if I’m going to see it burned to the ground by the rats that should’ve drowned on their swim over from Europe.
Seriously you cracked eggheads, I’m no arithmetician but even I can do an equation as simple as this. Two York + Irish + chinks + savages + one single palpitations germ = a Fourth of July powder keg. Look at it for two seconds and you’ll realize all we need is some simple subtraction.
You’re adding to the confusion by saying nothing. All those chinks in Chinatown threw in with that slant-eyed broad who ruined that science get-together. I have to walk through those streets on the way home from work and it’s nothing but a sea of cloth masks right now, as if a mask protects you from being a damn chink. I’ve half a mind to smoke out one of their buildings myself just so they get the message.
If you’re not going to do something about this the people will. We know how to mobilize. My wife is real good at making signs. The Proposal is going to pass with or without your help so you might as well hop on the winning train before it leaves the station and you’re stuck playing doctor to a bunch of bombs, their heartbeats counting down to a certain eventuality that’ll burn up your diplomas and your desks and all that ‘good will’ you’ve been hoarding like so much tinder.
You make me sick.
– Garfield Tucker
The Town Terrified of Melons
Things went well for their first two days on the lochtile. Bill repeatedly professed his astonishment that he wasn’t getting seasick. The four gained an understanding of each other’s quirks that just didn’t come through in the letters they painstakingly edited before sending. Wallace came to respect the part of Janet that clearly had no respect for human beings by default. The way he respected a well-oiled machine was nearly the same as her reverence for an ape that had climbed the social ladder of its group.
He also gave Rosamin lessons on how to handle Phyllis. While Rosamin practiced with the reins Wallace sat on the back of the giant saddle dragging bait from the fishing pole. He succeeded in catching several trout each day so they could have some fresh crispy meat alongside the slimy tinned goods.
The most difficult part was the lack of darkness and moonlight. Wallace and Bill had pocket watches with them, but they were useless in hollows thanks to the naturally high magnetic fields that interfered with their movements. They were forced to judge the time imprecisely by whether birds or crickets and frogs were singing. Sometimes the first yawn was the best measurement.
Tycho enjoyed himself as well, spending most of the time with his feet hanging off the animal’s flank and dragging in the water. Sometimes he hopped off and swam alongside, his lanky arms pulling him at an impressive speed. Janet told them how she had taken Tycho to a public swimming pool and had him taught by a former Olympian. Apparently, before the athlete had gotten to the ape his technique was more akin to a plucked footless duck.
On the third and hopefully final day of travel, assuming they’d calibrated night and day above ground correctly, they pulled up alongside a rowboat manned by a fisherman. They apologized for disturbing the fish, but he told them not to worry because the fish were mad at him anyway.
“Is this the way to Potter’s Plot?” Janet asked him, pointing down the river. “We just want to make sure we haven’t done something foolish like pass it.”
“Ayuh,” the fisherman drawled. He dabbed at his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief. Janet noticed a tiny monogram on it, the letters stitched in green to look like a curling vine. “This’n’s a straight shot on down. Jus’ be cautious now… crocoducks.”
“Crocoducks miss. Ornery sumbitches live on down the way… more off tuh the left than where you’re off tuh. Still… sometahms they float out where they don’t belong. Shouldn’t need tuh worry if yah jus’ keep your eyes open. There are some signs an’ things.” They thanked the man and urged Phyllis forward. Since he’d mentioned caution, Bill was all over the subject, asking why they hadn’t gotten more information regarding the clearly dangerous croc-ducks.
“They’re croc-o-ducks,” Wallace clarified. “I don’t need him to tell me anything about them because I’ve dealt with them. It’s probably a different species down here in Proserpine than it was back home, but by the sound of it the temperament is the same. They’re a Lamarckian offshoot of the dinosaurs, distinct from both birds and reptiles but happening to look like one of each was smashed into the other. They’re duck-sized with duck-like bodies, but scaly heads full of sharp teeth. I knew a man once trying to replicate their bite strength in machinery; he never did manage.”
“How dangerous are they?” Bill asked. Rosamin took her hands off the reins for a moment to flutter her fingers like feathers on the back of Bill’s neck. He shouted and flailed, sending Rosamin into a fit of laughter.
“If you stay out of their way it’s no problem,” Wallace said. “They bob around in large groups waiting for something old, young, or wounded to get too close. Then they swarm over it and bite enough holes for it to bleed to death. They wouldn’t bother with a person unless that person stormed into the middle of the flock waving his arms.”
“Would it bother with a lochtile? A lochtile carrying three people who qualify as old by most standards?” Bill asked.
“Phew, sounds like I’m fine,” Rosamin joked.
“We’ll keep Phyllis out of harm’s way,” Wallace said after a quiet moment. They all kept their eyes open for any sign of the creatures, but when they saw nothing for half an hour they went back to enjoying the scenery. Wallace started fishing in case they didn’t make it to town by what they guessed was midnight. Even though their worry was fading, Janet asked Tycho to stop swimming and get back on the lochtile. The great ape obeyed. He sat on the edge of the saddle and wrung out big handfuls of the fur on his chest and arms. Only when he was sure the annoyance would be minimal did he shake like a St. Bernard to get rid of the rest of it.
The already slow current of the river slowed further. The color of the water darkened as they hit a deep section. They heard Phyllis groan a little when she felt the cold water on the tips of her fins and her long snaking tail. Rosamin rubbed her neck to give her a little extra warmth. Leaning forward to get both hands around the reptile’s neck, she was the first to notice the signs up ahead where the river split in two. The tributary on the left was blocked by a single heavy chain stretched across it and covered in Spanish moss.
There were three signs all overlapping each other but all with similar messaging. One had dark green lochtiles contorted into letters and informing them Dirk’s facility was nearby. One was a sign for the upcoming Potter’s Plot. The third warned of crocoducks on the left: do not feed them, do not disturb them, do not look them in the eye, do not flee from them…
Phyllis slowed to a stop. The arc of her neck waved side to side. Eeunk Eeunk! Tycho too seemed to pick up on the unseen signal. He pulled his brown feet out of the water and stood on the saddle. Something under water, he signed to Janet. Wallace’s fishing line snapped. The sound echoed in their minds. He slowly set the rod down and opened the chest on the back of the saddle. His thoughts were of that green outline he’d seen in the darkness of the rattling train. His hand slowly lifted out, holding his phlogiston shotgun. He spied two shells rolling in the corner of the chest. He bent his knees and reached…
The water exploded under Phyllis’ head. A toothy maw full of jagged teeth stretched open and snapped shut on Phyllis’ chin. Eeeeeeeeeeeeeenk! Phyllis bucked in the water, her front fins rising up into the air. Wallace was knocked over the chest and into the water. Tycho tried to grab him, but only got the shotgun. Rosamin let go of the reins and rolled back onto Bill, whose white knuckle grip on the sides of his seat kept him in place. Janet similarly tried to stay put in hers.
None of them had a good enough angle to see the head of Warclaw Majewski poking out of the water and catching a breath as he straddled Muzzle. Then he went under again. He’d trained to stay under when bullets were flying overhead, when oil was spread across the surface of the water and the river was set ablaze. He didn’t need to come up for ninety seconds if he didn’t want to.
Tycho tossed the shotgun to Janet, grabbed whatever bits of leather on the saddle he could, and half-crawled to Phyllis’ neck. He grabbed on and swung around it, kicking Muzzle in the throat and sending the roaring lochtile back into the depths of the river. Thick crimson pearls of blood rained down from Phyllis’ jaw, but the wounds were shallow.
“Load my gun!” Wallace sputtered as he grabbed the back of the saddle and kicked his legs frantically. The cold of the deep crept up his legs like weeds.
“That means you Bill!” Rosamin shouted as she hopped off him and went to the chest to retrieve her emission goggles.
“What? Oh yes… Oh no,” Bill stammered. There was no way Janet could balance on the slick curved back of a terrified animal, so it really was up to him. He got to his feet and headed back as well, just in time to see Muzzle’s head and neck emerge from the side and speed towards him. Water sprayed from both sides as the monster plowed forward. Its bite was headed straight for Bill’s shoulder, but Tycho pushed him back and grabbed both sides of Muzzle’s face.
The ape underestimated Muzzle’s strength; the lochtile lashed backward and pulled him out over the river. Then Muzzle submerged and forced him to let go. He swam for the surface, but Muzzle’s tail slapped him across the chest and knocked him into a daze.
Wallace was nearly out of the water when another strike from Muzzle made him slip back down. A tendril of Spanish moss tickled his wet cheek. He craned his neck up and saw the overgrown chain pass directly over him. They were off course.
Janet tossed the gun to Bill, who would’ve accidentally shot himself in the cheek during the catch if it had been loaded. He fumbled around for the shells. Eeeeeerunk! He looked up and again saw Muzzle coming straight towards them. This time Rosamin’s head came up out of the basket, with a wicked smile on her face and blue lenses over her eyes. She depressed the switch. Two blue beams fired and struck Muzzle in the shoulder. Steam erupted from the wound. The lochtile veered away, giving them their first good look at its profile and the drenched man riding it.
“There’s… there’s a man!” Rosamin shouted, pointing as if anyone was looking anywhere else. In response Warclaw grimaced. He wanted nothing more than to pull out his pistol and take them each out with a perfect shot between the eyes, but his gun was wet. He knew the risks of the surprise approach. If the damn animal hadn’t missed Phyllis’ throat they’d be capsized already and he could have his lochtile rend them limb from limb. He was about to dive again when he heard curious flapping sounds. They all heard them.
Tycho resurfaced and grabbed the side of the saddle. Before he could pull himself up Janet leaned over the edge and put her finger to her mouth. She urged him to stay still. The ape slowly turned his head.
The crocoduck cocked its head. It bobbed in the after-current of the lochtile battle nonchalantly, its tiny black eyes moving between Phyllis’ juicy dripping neck and the soft flesh of Tycho’s nose, ears, and lips. Its head was shaped and textured like an old boot with yellow teeth emerging up and down along the sole. Its big nostrils flexed open and closed. When its mouth hung open in a pant he saw its fleshy white tongue, like the cresting back of a leucistic whale. Its yellow-green plumage prickled and made it look bigger. Everything about it made it seem bigger than a duck without that actually being the case.
Wallace was similarly trapped hanging on Phyllis’ side. He turned and saw two more crocoducks floating by. He signaled to Bill with two fingers and a glance because he didn’t dare move anything more. Bill slowly opened the shotgun and slid the shells in.
It was a stroke of luck that the animals were trained to react to crocoducks with calm rather than panic, because as Phyllis drifted forward and dripped blood from her chin, five more crocoducks paddled around below and lapped up the blood as it splashed. They hissed and groaned in satisfaction, only snapping at each other for the moment.
Everywhere they looked more crocoducks drifted in. Ten. Twenty. Thirty. The lochtiles didn’t drift through them so much as bump them into paddling a few feet away. Rosamin kept her finger primed on her emission switch. Bill shouldered the shotgun. Wallace watched Warclaw. He saw the jowly man smile. Warclaw and Muzzle silently disappeared under the surface.
“Goat gristle,” Wallace swore under his breath. “Get ready to shoot!” Muzzle’s tail reappeared and slapped the water as hard as it could. The crocoducks flew into the air, flapping wildly and snapping their jaws.
Bauf! Bill fired the phlogiston gun. It barked fire and knocked him back onto the saddle with a dislocated shoulder. At least it was a solid shot; one of the flapping monstrosities exploded into red flames and singed feathers. Bill dropped the gun and it slid down the saddle. Wallace caught it by the barrel just as its wooden stock touched the water. He heaved himself out and rolled over to face the ducks that had been right beside him. One of them bit into his boot and got only leather. He struck the creature with the end of the gun to avoid blowing off his own foot, but it did not release its grip. Instead it shook its blunt head side to side until it tore the front half of the shoe away and exposed the shape of his toes under the wet skin of his sock.
Rosamin blasted the ones around Wallace’s dangling feet, a wall of steam rising as her energized gaze moved across the water. A Crocoduck landed on Janet’s chair and growled. Wallace pivoted and fired the second shot. The duck exploded into green feathers and red viscera. Janet slouched in her seat and tried to keep the lowest profile possible. She held onto Bill, who nearly rolled off the animal while trying to rub the pain out of his shoulder. A stabbing pain hit Tycho’s spine as he pulled himself back up. He roared, louder than they’d ever heard, but it did not dissuade the duck chewing on his back like it was a stubborn piece of jerky.
“Tycho stay still!” Rosamin shouted. The ape obeyed to the best of his ability, giving her a chance to blast the animal off. Then she did her best to cover Wallace while he went for more shells.
“We have to dive!’ Janet cried.
“Squeeze her shoulders five times!” Wallace responded. He reloaded the gun and fired into the air again. A crocoduck corpse smacked against the saddle and bounced into the water. Six more crocoducks converged on it and tore apart their fallen comrade.
Tycho took it upon himself to initiate the dive. He stomped over to Phyllis’ neck, dropped down onto his bottom, and squeezed the lochtile’s shoulders with his hips five times. Janet warned everyone to hold their breath and hold onto something. She and Bill grabbed the edges of her seat, Rosamin hunkered down and grabbed the raised edge of the saddle, and Wallace braced himself against the chest. If diving didn’t work they would resurface and his gun would be useless.
Phyllis took a huge breath; her chest expanded outward to where you could count her ribs. Then the ancient creature sank into the cool depths and propelled herself forward. The crocoducks didn’t immediately give up. They dove in after them and forced them deeper. Only when they glided along the bottom, with a speed the paddle feet of the ducks could not match, did the flock lose interest and return to the surface to graze on the remaining chunks of their siblings’ flesh.
Wallace kept his eyes open the entire time; he was sure their assailant would return to finish the job now that their weapons wouldn’t be an issue. He scanned the water and the rocks for any sign of a reptilian shadow, but none came. Perhaps the fiend was worried Phyllis would be able to defeat his smaller lochtile now that the element of surprise was gone. They stayed under as long as they could, until Janet’s breath gave out and a plume of bubbles rose from her mouth. Bill tapped Rosamin who in turn tapped Tycho and pointed up. The ape, who had both hands over his mouth like one of a certain famous ape trio, squeezed his legs against the lochtile another five times. Phyllis angled upward.
The warm glow of Proserpine greeted them again when they broke the surface. The willows still waved in the breeze as if nothing had changed. The scientists recoiled as the shadow of a bird flew overhead, but then they saw it was just an ordinary goose with no claws on its wings and no teeth in its bill. They kept their weapons on them even though they wouldn’t be any good until the components had been cleaned and dried.
They took stock of their injuries. Bill protested, so Janet had Tycho hold him in place while Wallace popped his shoulder back where it belonged. He yelped in pain like a rooster having all its tail feathers plucked simultaneously. Then Janet examined the wound on Tycho’s back. It was still oozing blood and making his fur dark and sticky, so they fashioned a bandage out of a few pieces of Bill’s excess clothing. The meteorologist mentioned what a good thing it was he’d packed for any occasion.
“Who was that?” Rosamin asked as she popped open a panel on her goggles and drained the water out of them.
“A lunatic!” Bill jumped in like he’d been waiting for the question. “What a lunatic is doing in broad hollow-light in the middle of a river I have no idea.”
“It’s nearly impossible anyone would know we’re here,” Wallace added a touch more helpfully, “unless that person followed us all the way from Two York.”
“He was on the train with us?” Rosamin whined. “Why did he wait so long to strike?”
“This was the first time we were alone,” Janet noted.
“I don’t believe it an accident that we’re alone,” Wallace said. “What are the odds that the train catching fire was an accident, given we know there was a hired killer on the platform?”
“Slim to none. Also known as average luck in the life of Rosamin Bluff-Polk,” Rosamin said. “Is it arrogance to assume he was hired by the academy? Strom or Nielson?”
“No it is not,” Janet said before Wallace could beat her to it. “This can’t be some bounty hunter looking to collect on our warrants. First of all we’re wanted alive, not dead. Did you see his eyes? This man is all determination. He’ll be back.”
“Perhaps I could lend him some of my doubts and fears,” Bill said, half-giddy with fear. “Oh! Look! People! We can leave this mad river behind us.” He pointed down the river where they saw the big welcoming sign for Dirk’s Lochtiles. The two paths of the river had rejoined. Past the sign stood a building much like the one Phyllis had been housed in, but significantly larger.
They were greeted not only by Dirk, a friendly man with hair like a brushed skunk, but also by the sheriff of Potter’s Plot and three deputies. They escorted the four scientists and their ape off of Phyllis and into a greenhouse Dirk allowed the police to use for some impromptu questioning. The police were brusque with them, but allowed a moment for them to pet Phyllis and thank the animal for her brave service. After that Dirk put some disinfecting powder on her chin, hopped on her back, and rode her into the water stables.
Only Janet and Tycho were allowed to be questioned together, and it took twice as long because the police needed to assess whether or not the ape could or should be questioned at all. They only decided it was worth the effort when Janet relayed a joke told by the ape that was so funny it could only have been produced by a sharp wit.
They asked where they’d gotten Phyllis and what happened to the animal’s jaw. They asked what had produced the scientists’ disheveled and crocoduck-blood-stained states. They asked where they were from but, curiously, did not ask where they were headed. Each of them managed to keep their answers honest and vague enough to tell the truth without mentioning the warrants out for their arrest several colonies away. As far as they knew, their attacker was just some drenched lunatic jealous of their lochtile.
Once they’d all been questioned the police filled them in on the situation. They had received a message by carrier pigeon that one of the lochtiles upriver had been stolen and the owners threatened. With their accounts it now seemed clear their attacker and the thief were one and the same. The sheriff told them about the best, and only, hotel in town where they could rent a room for the night while they arranged the next step in their journey.
“And there’s a little restaurant run by Mrs. Abigail Milldoor that you have to try,” the sheriff insisted. “She has a discount for customers of the hotel that even includes free glasses of rosemary lemonade.” They nodded along and he kept insisting. “I’m right serious. If Mrs. Milldoor hears someone came through but didn’t take advantage I think it would shatter her fragile little heart.” They nodded more emphatically. “You’d regret missing out on her food for the rest of your life.”
When they finally convinced him to clam up about the food they were able to start winding down for their first dark night indoors since the train. They were told the hotel did not allow pets, but Dirk reappeared and offered a hay-filled corner of the attic above the stables to Tycho. They accepted the offer. After Janet gave Dirk some tips for treating the wound on the ape’s back she embraced Tycho and told him not to worry about her. Bill stayed by the primatologist’s side and helped her walk into town.
They caught Potter’s Plot in the midst of a three day festival celebrating fruit preserves. The main street was lined with temporary stalls stacked with row after row of colorful glass jars. The entire town seemed to be out enjoying it. The young girls wore fancy dresses and big white bows. The boys had their hair slicked down.
The games and conversation didn’t distract them from the near-blinding whiteness of the architecture. Everywhere where a town above ground would let the ivy grow up the walls, the people of Potter’s Plot had torn it up by the roots and salted the tiny strip of soil it had emerged from. There was no sign of bird droppings on any of the statues or fountains. Even the domes over the public buildings looked freshly cleaned, a fact testified to by all the folded ladders leaning up against alley walls.
A very fat dog waddled by Bill. He looked down and thought its potbelly quite odd-looking, given that herding dogs like that rarely lazed about. As its wagging tail disappeared behind a booth to lap up the spilled syrup from a jar of white peaches, Bill’s eyes moved up and noticed the problem was not exclusive to the canine. He saw a young woman who appeared to be heavily with child, but she was carousing with two men and drinking wine. Then he spotted another woman, much older, who also seemed on the verge of motherhood.
A man waddled by with a gut much the same shape and size bulging out from between his suspenders. Bill counted those afflicted by the abdominal bulges and came up with a ratio of one thin waist to every three expanded ones. Now that he thought about it, one of the deputies had looked a bit thick around the middle. What finally convinced him he had to say something was the sight of a child skipping rope. When his shirt lifted after each jump Bill saw his rotund belly, with a tiny green vine sprouting from his navel.
“I don’t mean to be a gossip, but are you seeing their stomachs?” he whispered to Janet as he helped her past a stand loaded with jarred rhubarb.
“This happens sometimes in the south,” she whispered back to him. “Watermelon seeds.”
“Good lord! All these people have swallowed seeds? Don’t they have the seedless variety? That’s why it caught me so off guard; I haven’t seen a melly in Two York for at least ten years.”
“It’s the stubborn religiosity of these small towns,” Janet blamed. “Since the sweet flesh of the watermelon is such a temptation they believe it must be akin to the biblical forbidden fruit. They teach their children the only safe way to deal with watermelon is to avoid it at all costs.”
“But you can’t keep kids away from the sweetest fruit on the vine. They could find one in their backyard!”
“That’s the problem. Not only do they characterize its consumption as sinful, they spread misinformation about it. They tell their children that if they eat it they are doomed to death or hell or endless public shame. That last one they often work quite hard to maintain.”
“Don’t they see what it’s doing? I see kids ready to burst everywhere.”
“That’s the price of remaining purityrants. There’s nothing more important to people like this than the illusion of purity.”
“But the health consequences! I’m no physician, but even I remember the list of side effects we learned in agriculture education: back pain, pelvic pain, indigestion, infertility… not to mention the possible complications! If they fall on their stomachs and rupture the fruit it could cause the other seeds inside to germinate. What a fate that would be!”
“Thank the star-holes you live in a more educated part of the colonies. Of course that seems to be changing; otherwise we wouldn’t be stuck in this hole at all. I know those mellies are quite a sight, but it is still rude to stare Bill.”
“Oh yes, of course. I should be looking for that hotel.” The hotel wasn’t too difficult to find; it was just past the five competing stands that sold jarred moonshine. Every sign declared their secret recipe for the spirit was the best, to the point where they even argued with each other. Chapell’s spirit is weak; Pinkwater’s spirit is strong enough to join the circus! Don’t listen to their fibs, taste the clean truth of Harold and Sons!
The hotel was a modest building made slightly less inviting by its peculiarly perfect tidiness. All of the furniture looked and smelled freshly varnished. The silver bell on the desk was free of fingerprints. Every signature in the guestbook was perfectly legible and didn’t cross over onto the lines above or below. The keys dangling on hooks behind the counter didn’t have a speck of rust and the spots where they connected to their room tags were padded with cotton so they wouldn’t jingle. A woman appeared the second before Wallace’s hand could touch the bell. She pulled it back so he wouldn’t be tempted. They tried not to stare at her low-hanging melly under her dress or the way she held it with one hand and braced her lower back with the other.
“Only one night with us? That’s a shame. Just make sure you don’t miss breakfast at Milldoor’s. You’ll be kicking yourself if you do,” she said after they paid for two rooms.
“We wouldn’t dream of it,” Wallace said. It was true enough after several nights of campfire fish and slimy metallic vegetables. He knew how to clean and cook fish, but something about the ones swimming in the hollow wasn’t particularly appetizing; their flesh was pale and loose, probably a remnant of heritage from fish that dwelled in the hollow when it was dark and safe to inhabit ghostly forms.
The four scientists made their way to their rooms; each room had two small beds. The women took one and the men took the other, but not before making a tentative plan to catch breakfast at Milldoor’s the next morning, if only to make the locals stop talking about it, and then ask around for any autowagons or horse-drawn means of transportation that could finally get them to the hollow’s exit. There was always the option of renting another lochtile from Dirk, but they all feared the return of the assassin and weren’t eager to give him another opportunity to literally attack them from beneath their feet.
In the room where the two men stayed, Bill stared out the window for an hour, quickly closing the lace curtains any time someone on the cobblestone street looked his way. He would’ve shared his observations of Potter’s Plot with Wallace, but the engineer took great pains to make himself look busy as he laid out everything from his bag on the bedspread to help it dry. He disassembled and cleaned his phlogiston shotgun and took stock of the remaining ammunition: eight shells. He silently wondered how impolite it would be to ask Rosamin if he could examine her emission goggles. Surely his employers would be interested in them.
Bill turned back to the window. He wondered which plague was worse, people exploding in the street like fireworks or the slow growth of parasitic plants inside their guts. His eyes followed an old man with a long beard and a melly as he hobbled over to a chair outside the barbershop. The vine emerging from his navel was leafy and thrice as long as his beard; it wrapped around his entire abdomen like a belt. He’d even tied it in a knot to keep it in place.
Bill watched the barber emerge from his shop with a tiny polished pair of hedge clippers. The men shook hands and gabbed for a little while. Eventually the bearded one got down to business and lifted his shirt, revealing his swollen navel and the thick green stem of the melon vine. Bill then saw the effect melon seeds apparently had when they were nearly as aged as their hosts; a web of roots radiated out from his navel, just under the skin. Bill grimaced, but kept watching as the barber took the hedge clippers to the vine and trimmed off the leaves, one by one, until the vine was a clean-looking green rope. The older man paid the barber, heaved himself out of the chair, and went on his way.
“Can you handle sleeping in shifts Bill?” Wallace suddenly asked.
“Do you think that man’s coming back?” Bill extrapolated.
“I do. One of us should always have our eyes open. We need to protect the women.”
“Of course,” Bill said as he puffed out his chest and tried to close the curtains in a manly fashion. “It’s our responsibility. I’ll take first watch… How long is first watch?”
In the other room Janet and Rosamin sat on their beds unfolding their soaked clothing and discussing their situation. Rosamin felt a weird mixture of nervous fear and pride. After all, if she was important enough to warrant assassination attempts it meant her work truly was of incredible value. Having her own assassin was perhaps even better than having a medal. If only his skin tone was bronze, silver, or gold to indicate his lethality. She put her nervous mind to work plucking similar experiences out of Janet.
“Have you ever had someone oppose your work… violently?” she asked the primatologist.
“Oh yes,” Janet answered with a smirk. She opened a small tin from her bag and smelled it. Rosamin caught a strong herby whiff and wondered if it was an exotic seasoning or a topical arthritis powder. “Nearly a dozen times by my count. Some of the best fun I’ve ever had.”
“You must tell me about them,” Rosamin demanded. She blew away the image in her mind of being tucked in by Janet and read a bedtime story.
“The problem was meat for many years. Many of my bitterest enemies were bush-meat butchers eager to get their hands on gorilla flanks or gibbon hearts. Some of them I could understand; they lived in communities that partially relied on that food. I couldn’t let that supersede those glorious animals though. There will always be more people who need to be fed, but there will come a point where there are no more beating gibbon hearts. It’s simple when you think of it that way.”
“Were any of them like the lochtile-rider who attacked us? Ruthless? Cunning?”
“I don’t know if I would use such dime novel words, but there was one man whose brutality stuck with me. Firstly, we should put a name to this man who is chasing us. We may need to call him out to each other. Any ideas?”
“He’s working for the academy,” Rosamin pondered aloud. “We’ve only seen him in the hollow though… and he came up from under us. How about the groundhog?” She snorted and giggled at her own suggestion.
“Well you are the target I assume, so you should get to do the naming,” was Janet’s only response.
“Now tell me about the brutal man. Was he a butcher as well?”
“No, he was a leader. I was studying in South America at the time, Guiana to be specific. My original team of researchers had all returned home because they couldn’t stand the humidity. They were an inexperienced bunch that hadn’t yet learned that the rest of the earthly disk has weather as well. It was down to me to finish the project and find the vector for a degenerative illness in a population of squirrel monkeys there.”
“How did squirrel monkeys lead to violence?”
“Well the tiny beings didn’t declare war if that’s what you mean. This man… He was an overseer of sorts in his community. He kept eyes on troublemakers and always made it very clear when their god, or their people, or the men above him were upset. These things often coincided with his own interests you understand. One day he caught me observing the monkeys and told me I was not welcome in their community. I had every legal right to research there, but this man was his own ultimate authority.”
“Then what happened?” Rosamin leaned back on the bed so she wouldn’t fall face-first into the carpet.
“He told me to leave. I said I would, but that was because I was alone in the jungle with him. Instead, I went about my research normally and hoped he wouldn’t find me again. Little did I know he investigated the people I was staying with. He even waited outside their home for me for several hours to prove I’d still been out doing research.”
“He doesn’t sound violent yet.”
“We’re getting there. He started accusing me of killing the squirrel monkeys. He raided my friends’ home with three armed men one day. He rifled around in my drawers. Suddenly he shouts ‘aha!’ and pulls out the corpse of a squirrel monkey. Only this corpse was not a corpse at all. It was some sort of hastily constructed puppet!” Rosamin descended into a fit of snorting giggles. Janet smiled. “I had a similar reaction; I assumed it was obvious he had brought it with him and planted it. He was thoroughly committed to the illusion. He went on a tirade about how I was there to kill all their wildlife. He waved the puppet around extremely quickly, occasionally hitting himself in the face with the tail. I think he thought that if he waved it around fast enough his men wouldn’t notice it was made of down and stitches.”
“Stop!” Rosamin squealed as she held her side and rolled around on the bed. “Is it just men? I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a woman in that much denial.”
“Oh I have stories for that as well,” Janet assured. “As comedic as this man was, he didn’t stay that way. He had me arrested for the corpse his hand was shoved inside.” Rosamin’s laughter ceased. “I was eventually freed by his superior, but that wasn’t the end of it. He caught me, once again alone in the jungle, just as I was finishing my research. He attacked me with a knife.”
“What did he say?”
“He said that his word was law. He said it was not just the law of man; that wasn’t good enough for him. His word had to be the law of nature as well. He knew his god had given him authority to dictate both reality and truth. He literally did not understand it was his ego that made him feel that way. Anyone who suggested his monkey was a puppet was calling him a fraud. There was nothing, in the entire world, in any person’s or animal’s life, more important than that to him.”
“How did you escape?”
“At that moment he was attacked by an angry tribe of squirrel monkeys.”
“So they were violent!”
“While I was researching them I may have thrown in some training.”
“Oh I was studying a disease. A little behavior modification didn’t make a difference. I do it with most of the apes I study. There are tribes all over the world that would recognize me if I returned, even if all the original apes have passed. It’s a good thing I did train them, because they saved my life by biting the man’s ear lobes until he relented. Back then I still had enough power in these legs to get away.” Janet rubbed her thighs.
“I can’t fault you,” Rosamin realized. “Your training saved us today! If Tycho hadn’t knocked that other lochtile off us we could be at the bottom of the river.”
“I’ve got another idea, only it burdens us instead of Tycho. I think it would be wise for us to sleep in turns. There’s no telling if the groundhog managed to follow us here.”
“You’re probably right,” Rosamin said. “We need to protect the boys. They’re our responsibility.”
All four of them looked exactly like a half night’s sleep as they sat on the patio of Milldoor’s for their breakfast. Abigail Milldoor was a polite woman in a polka dot dress and an apron. Her hands, which scurried around the table dropping off silverware and glasses of lemonade with tiny sprigs of rosemary floating in them, smelled strongly of syrup. Maples didn’t do very well in hollows, so it was anyone’s guess what kind of tree had produced their hotcake topper. Bill was eager to find out.
“I’ll have a stack of the hotcakes please,” he ordered. Mrs. Milldoor swung around to him; he leaned back to dodge the swell of her melly.
“Excellent choice,” she bubbled. “The sheriff told me you looked like a smart bunch. What about the rest of you?” Hotcakes for Rosamin. Toast, bacon, and black coffee for Wallace. A spinach omelet for Janet. She jotted them all down in her mind and waddled away to set the cook to the task. While she was gone they stayed relatively quiet, trying to pull vitality out of the air with deep breaths. Their droopy eyes drifted out into the street, where horse carts and people meandered back and forth in their daily chores. Rosamin did her best to not picture one of the melon-afflicted falling over and rolling down the gentle slope of the street.
“She mentioned the sheriff,” Janet thought aloud. “I’ve only just realized… What if the groundhog, who to these ordinary citizens may appear to be a legal bounty collector, decides the easiest way to capture us is to merely mention the arrest warrants to the sheriff?”
“The groundhog?” Bill questioned. Rosamin snickered.
“Oh, I’m sorry. It’s a little name Rosamin picked for the attacker, until we learn his real one.”
“That is why we should leave today,” Wallace said. He twisted in his chair to see if the coffee was on its way. He could smell it.
“I’m not too worried,” Bill said. Everyone looked at him like he’d just dumped the lemonade over his own head. “He’ll be coming into town on the back of a lochtile. The law will know he’s the thief because of the message they received.”
“He could leave the animal outside of town and shoot it,” Wallace countered.
“Who would do such a… I suppose you’re right,” Bill admitted. Mrs. Milldoor arrived with all four plates expertly balanced on her arms. Wallace snagged the cup of coffee from her before she set it down and drank deeply, the steam climbing up his nostrils like ivy. He groaned in satisfaction.
“That’s what I like to hear,” the owner crooned. She stood back and started talking to someone down in the street that she recognized.
“I don’t think anything here has ever seen the inside of a can,” Janet bubbled. She pulled out the tin Rosamin had seen the other night and put a dash of its contents on the omelet, answering the microscopist’s question. Bill poured dew-colored syrup over four fluffy cakes. Rosamin picked up her own fork and knife and began cutting her cakes into little squares. Her chair faced towards the street; as her eyes settled between the handles of her utensils something strange caught her attention. A face.
She’d never seen one quite like it before. It belonged to a man. She saw his short scrawny body emerge from an alley. His hair was blonde like sunlight reflecting off a stagnant bog. His eyebrows were thick at the ends, which gave him an expression a bit like a crafty old cat that insisted on sleeping in the barn rather than the house. One of his front teeth was silver and one of his bottom teeth was missing; she saw his pink tongue poking through the hole. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, something that became clearer when he started to walk towards her. His clothes were very colorful: a red vest, a green shirt, and brown pants. He had a silver chain leading into a pocket, but there was no corresponding bulge of a pocket watch. His walk turned into a run. He ducked under a horse as it passed by and then leapt up the patio stairs.
“Oh my! Oh! Look out everyone,” Rosamin warned. They turned just as the man’s knees bumped into their table. He just stared at them for several seconds, huffing and puffing from the exertion. He batted at his own hair to get it out of his eyes.
“Excuse me! What are you doing?” Mrs. Milldoor asked. She lifted herself off the railing and marched over. “Get off my porch Pinkwater! You’re scaring my customers!”
“Hello,” the man, apparently called Pinkwater, said. “I just need to… If you don’t mind…” his voice trailed off. Janet, never one to pay much attention to aberrant human behavior, skewered a chunk of her omelet and brought it towards her mouth. Pinkwater leaned over the table and knocked the fork out of her hand. In the process he toppled the syrup bottle and got its contents all over his clothing. Sticky buttons didn’t seem to bother him however. The food bothered him. “Excuse me,” he muttered again as he dug his fingers into Janet’s breakfast. He flung bits of egg out of the way, including into Wallace’s coffee. Wallace stood up and heaved the scrawny Pinkwater off the table and put him up against the railing of the patio.
“Oh my, you’re so strong!” Mrs. Milldoor complimented Wallace. “I’m so sorry about him. He’s just a mixed-up nut. A nasty rum maker.”
“I make excellent rum,” Pinkwater corrected. Wallace turned to address Milldoor, but Pinkwater slipped out of his grasp and flung himself back onto the table, this time crushing Bill’s hotcakes. He plunged his hands back into the omelet and squeezed big handfuls of it. Egg and spinach oozed out from between his fingers.
“You’re paying for that food,” Wallace growled as he grabbed the man’s shirt collar.
“Aha!” Pinkwater yelped as Wallace pulled him back to standing. “Look look look.” He held up something small and brushed the last bits of egg off it. They all squinted to see. Jet black under the layer of grease. A seed. A seed from a very notorious fruit. Janet gasped and pulled her chair away from the table. Bill pushed his plate away and hopped up like a tarantula had crawled across his foot. Rosamin seriously considered sticking her finger down her throat to induce emesis until she remembered she hadn’t actually taken a bite yet. “It’s a small one too. That’s how Abigail gets you. You never even feel the crunch.”
“What is the meaning of this?” Janet demanded from Milldoor.
“I’m sorry, it’s some kind of mistake,” the restaurant owner tried to explain. “Pinkwater probably planted that himself! I told you he was nutty.”
“Not as nutty as your omelets!” Pinkwater taunted before flicking the seed at Mrs. Milldoor’s forehead. “I’m not done with my excavation quite yet!” Wallace released his collar and let him return to the table where he started ripping Bill’s hotcakes like strips of newspaper. “A-ahaha-ha!” He extracted another watermelon seed and bounced it off a plate with a tink. It landed in the lemonade.
“I’m getting my husband!” Mrs. Milldoor proclaimed and stormed back into the building. Pinkwater grabbed up a napkin and cleared the mess from his hands before blowing his nose into it.
“How did you know those seeds were there?” Rosamin asked.
“Let me put it this way miss,” he explained, “I bet everybody around here had nothing but goodness to say about Milldoor’s.”
“The recommendations were rather glowing,” Bill admitted.
“Yessir, watermelon seeds are the official dish of Potter’s Plot.”
“I assumed the people around here discouraged its consumption,” Janet said.
“You’d be more than right. In fact, watermelon is illegal within our borders. That way none of the poor children are exposed.”
“But… but they are…”
“And that’s the black gnarly root of this whole situation,” Pinkwater said. He inspected his nails to make sure he’d removed all the cake from under them and offered a handshake to each of the scientists. “My name’s Goadphil Pinkwater, but you can call me Goady. I hate to burden you folks, but Abigail is going to be back out here any second with her husband Bertram to tell you all about how crazy I am. She’ll spin a nice little web and try and get you all caught up again. I know it’s a lot to ask, but I think you should come stay with me while you’re in town. I can keep the seeds out of you.”
“We weren’t planning on staying at all,” Wallace said. He tipped his coffee cup and couldn’t help but frown as he watched the hot liquid disappear between the slats in the patio. “Thank you for the help, but if you could just point us to some transportation.”
“I’m afraid you don’t understand the sharpness of the steel trap you’re in,” Goady whispered. He glanced around and confirmed they were being watched by several of the people on the street. “If you try to leave you’ll find that every bit of transport is mysteriously closed down. The only honest way out of here is my cousin Dirk who rents lochtiles.”
“Dirk is your cousin as well?”
“Dirk’s real good at being a cousin. He does it for most people in town. If you try to get to him you’ll likely be turned away by the sheriff with some excuse. Last time he claimed Dirk needed some kind of animal handling license that doesn’t actually exist.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s not easy to explain… especially out here in the open, but if you come with me, I have a lovely home by the way, I can explain everything to you and improve your chances of getting out of here.”
“He did save us from those seeds,” Rosamin said to soften the apprehension on Wallace’s face. “What reason does he have to do that other than good will?”
“I hate to rush you folks, but Bertram’s liable to get me arrested. That would be my fifth time this year and I just don’t have time for that today.”
“Telling us about your criminal record isn’t helping,” Wallace said.
“Not a legitimate arrest in the bunch,” Goady assured. “I really am swamped today. I was just trying to do a solid good deed for you folks because it’s what my momma and papa would’ve wanted from me, but if you don’t want my help I’ll be on my way.”
“Do you always do what your parents would’ve wanted?”
“Of course. They’re always watching. They’re dead of course, but they can’t rise to heaven because we’ve got a roof over our heads. They’ve got nothing better to do now than watch me run around and fret. If you’ll excuse me…” Goady bowed to the women and descended the patio steps back into the street. Wallace looked at the others and read their faces.
“Wait… Do you mind if we stop by the hotel first for our things?” Goady smiled impishly.
“If I did that would just pour mortar in my hollow hospitality, wouldn’t it?
Goadphil’s lovely home wasn’t so lovely on the outside. It was down a dirt path and buried in the woods deeper than a tick in a hairy underarm. It seemed to be built backwards, with its front door almost pressed against a steep ivy-covered slope. The roof was slightly tilted and flaking. The wood had advanced through basic rot to a white color like fleshy mushroom caps. An autowagon was parked sideways in front of the backdoor, also blocking entry. It had a bed topped with wooden fencing that made it look ideal for transporting small livestock like chickens or sheep. A dog, with breeding so indistinct it could have been part raccoon, strained against its chain, whining and wiggling its tail rather than barking.
“Cicero! You’re supposed to bark at strangers! You’re the guard dog,” Goady chastised the mutt. He rubbed its head and the loose skin around its lips anyway.
“Your home is like a lockbox,” Janet said plainly. “How do we get inside?”
“I’m glad you asked. That means it’s just as confounding to the sheriff. Follow me.” Goady led them around the side of the house. A few ravens abandoned the edge of the well as they rounded the corner. Goady closely examined a pile of wet leaves, found something the others couldn’t see, and pulled on it. A blanket of grass and loam folded over, revealing a cellar door with no trespassers scratched into it. Goady pulled on his silver watch chain, which turned out to be attached to a small key corroded to an oily black. He used it to unlock the door. He strained himself so much trying to lift it that he asked Rosamin for assistance.
From there he led them down into the cellar. The only area they had access too was a tiny passage with wood on all sides and another string of locks on the left. They saw the distinct orange light of phlogiston lamps coming through the wood behind the locks, but Goady just urged them forward. Just before they reached another set of stairs he rapped on the wood.
“Mardin! You in there?”
“Sure am,” a voice said nonchalantly from behind the panel. “Who’s with you?”
“Some new friends. I caught Milldoor trying to feed them seeds and I thought we could help them out.”
“We don’t need extra eyes on us.”
“It’s fine. We’ll just wait until it’s dim and then we can take them down the turtle trail and get them on one of Dirk’s lochies. Why don’t you come on up when you’re done and meet everybody. They’re an interesting bunch.”
“Gladly. I’m fishing out maggots. Might take me a minute.”
“You take all the time you need buddy.”
“Make them some breakfast.”
“You stopped them from eating Milldoor’s crafty cakes; they need breakfast.”
“Heavens to hardwood… You’re right. I didn’t even think about that. Come on. I can do up some bacon and toast.” Goady took them up the other set of creaky stairs up into the house proper. They were happy to see something far more kept up than the exterior. It was clean and decorated sparsely, a fact somewhat countered by the odd choice of decorations. The sitting room had a fainting couch with a carousel horse, nearly stripped of paint, built into the arm. Three industrial bellows leaned up against the wall with framed pictures hanging by wire from their nozzles. The corners of a few of the pictures were folded in the frames.
Goady told them to relax while he popped into the kitchen to start up the stove. While he yelled stories to them from the other room they continued to take stock of the house. Bill and Janet sat on the couch, Bill straddling the wooden horse, while Rosamin and Wallace walked in circles. The sizzle of pork fat in the pan sent their lingering hunger into a symphony of stomach growls, so Wallace tried to talk up a distraction.
“Can you explain this place to us Goady? Potter’s Plot seems to have a very strange relationship with watermelons. Back in the tribes we just put the flesh through a sieve. No seeds, no problems.”
“If only the human ego were so simple,” Goady expounded as he flipped the bacon. He stuck his nose dangerously close to the popping grease and inhaled. “Ahhh. Maybe I should open a restaurant. Goady’s Griddle. What do you think?”
“The melons?” Janet asked. She rolled her eyes; Rosamin snickered and pushed Bill out of the way so she could hop on the carousel horse. She urged it forward with a clicking sound but the beast remained still.
“Right,” Goady muttered as he re-boarded his train of thought. “There’s this bible verse, I forget which one, it definitely has a few numbers and a colon, which talks about temptation. People around here take it to mean that resisting temptation is the noblest calling on god’s Earth.”
“What does that have to do with watermelon?”
“Well what’s more tempting than that beautiful, sparkling, pink flesh? Sensible people would realize nothing can keep young people away from it. They would take the appropriate precautions. Seedless varieties. Sieves. But noooo… The only thing that can be done is resisting temptation. Abstaining only. Anything else is undignified. Who knew the devil was characterized by caution?”
“It’s like an orchard for shame,” Wallace said. He leaned against the wall. “Are they really too stubborn to admit it?”
“Exactly right. Everyone is supposed to uphold the moral code, yet nearly everybody slips. That or they never get the right warnings in the first place.”
“I’ve seen this phenomenon,” Janet confirmed. “Never this badly before. I’ve never seen the fruit flatly outlawed. Usually they just fail to prepare their children because they fear they’re making a sin too appealing.”
“There isn’t a single sinful thing about it,” Goady said as he came into the room with a few plates of bacon and nearly-burnt bread. He rushed back into the kitchen and then returned with a block of butter on the upside-down lid of a red clay pot. It slid slowly down the side when he set it on a table. The scientists helped themselves. “Watermelon is my favorite food,” he mentioned through the sounds of crunching. Then he disappeared into the kitchen again and came out with a plate of four beautiful pink cubes, freshly sliced from the fruit in his icebox. “Would anyone care for a piece?”
“We just narrowly avoided it,” Bill said as he stared at the cubes like they were explosive powder pressed in square molds. Goady grabbed a piece with two fingers and placed it in his mouth. He chewed and swallowed.
“Seedless. I grew it myself,” he boasted. Rosamin hopped off the carousel horse and took one. It was extremely light and sweet, more like the foam on a watermelon soda than an average piece. Tempted as she was to barely squish it against the roof of her mouth and let it slide down her throat, she still chewed it thoroughly as a precaution.
“That may be the best melon I’ve ever had,” she admitted as she licked her fingers. “Does it all taste like that around here? If so it’s no wonder everyone’s carrying a melon.”
“Oh no, it’s outlawed remember?” Goady reminded. “I’ve been cultivating this kind myself for a very long time. Everything else around here that people get their hands on grows wild… and has more seeds than the average hive has bees.”
“You aren’t afraid of being jailed?” Bill asked.
“I have no choice but to risk it,” Goady said. “My surname, Pinkwater, comes from my family’s long history of raising melons and squashing them into fine beverages. If I didn’t raise them it’d be like I was ashamed of my own sugary blood.”
“How do you sell it when it’s outlawed?”
“Not everybody in town is a sin scarecrow. I’ve got customers.”
“Milldoor,” Wallace nudged the conversation. “What was she doing putting seeds in our food? What is there to gain from that?”
“You,” Goady said simply. He offered Wallace a piece of melon, but the engineer declined. “Think it through. Most of the town’s got fruit filling up their guts, so there’s no room for babes. If the women can’t produce, the town will die. And you don’t get a lot of new blood at the bottom of a hollow.”
“So what you’re saying,” Janet inferred, “is that she was trying to recruit us?”
“I’d call it converting,” Goady said through a mouth full of melon. He wiped the excess juice on his vest. “But yes. They don’t admit it, but the melon-haters in town want you stuck with the same burden they bear. They collude and keep folks stuck here until the seeds they slip them start developing. Their hope is their victims will be so ashamed and inconvenienced that they’ll relocate here permanently.”
“How long has this been going on?” Janet asked. She seemed less offended and more curious as to how she hadn’t heard of it. Someone like her should have completed a comprehensive study of such a strange place by now.
“A few years. Long enough that they know it keeps this town going, and long enough that I might have to shut my operation down soon. The last of the Pinkwaters will dry up.”
“You think you can get us out of here,” Wallace reminded, glossing over the Pinkwater tragedy.
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Pinkwater assured. “I just need a little help from my associate.” As if summoned, another man emerged from the basement stairs, his footsteps soft and slow. This man looked slightly older than Pinkwater, with short gray-tinged hair. He was shorter and heavier and wore tortoiseshell eyeglasses. He wiped his wet hands on a rag that probably hadn’t been washed since the invention of rags.
“Speak of the devil,” Goady said. “Friends, this is my associate Mardin Chapell.”
“I recognize you,” Rosamin said. “In fact, I’ve just placed both of you. Yesterday we saw you manning moonshine stands. You had signs taunting each other.”
“All part of our cover,” Mardin said with his sleepy voice and a wink. “If we’re at each other’s throats over our product, surely we aren’t working together on a secret crop of seedless watermelons.” Mardin walked over to his partner, took the last piece of melon, and then wrapped his arm around Goady’s shoulder.
“And you two are…”
“Associates,” Mardin confirmed with a slight nod.
“I imagine that’s outlawed here as well,” Janet whispered to Bill.
“How is the crop doing?” Goady asked his partner as he took the beleaguered rag and wiped his own hands.
“Crop’s fine,” Mardin said. “The tank is getting worse though. I can’t figure it out. No matter how much Val scrubs the damn thing we’re still getting wrigglers. I think we need to boil it somehow.”
“What tank is this?” Wallace asked, his ears perking up at the machine talk.
“Irrigation tank,” Mardin said softly, as if he was unsure as to its believability. “We’re having spontaneous generation issues.”
“Oh that nightmare!” Rosamin blurted. “The number of times I was examining an animalcule only to have it overrun by a foam of thousands that weren’t there a moment before!”
“How did you solve it?” Goady asked.
“A solution of alcohol kept the effect at bay,” she explained, “but it destroyed the animalcules we were trying to study! Now we use extremely precise instruments to apply a ring of alcohol with a swab around the subject.”
“We’ve got plenty of shine around here, but I don’t think that one will work for us. Our tanks are eight feet tall,” Mardin said. He took back the rag from Goady and dabbed at the light perspiration on his forehead.
“What about you Wally?” Rosamin asked. “You work with phlogiston right? Surely the heat encourages spontaneous generation.”
“In some cases,” Wallace said. “It’s usually not a problem for me. I work with engines and controlled explosives; the caloric concentration is actually too high for much generation.” Their work had suffered from the basic biological principle, but luckily they lived in a time with iceboxes and canning to protect their food. In the olden days before such modern conveniences, food was constantly under siege by spoilage, including the spontaneous formation of lower decomposers and detritivores.
A lovely piece of flank steak left to sit on a counter would, over two nights, turn green. Over three it would spout white hairs of mold. Over four the first miniscule maggots would appear as barely visible wiggling lines in the steak’s tissue. The smallest animalcules of rot, poetically accused of being jealous of god’s greater creatures, banded together, fused, and became newer larger lifeforms. Spontaneous generation may very well have been how complex life on Earth began, but at the moment it was a huge nuisance. On the fifth night the steak would be covered in buzzing flies, slithering slugs and snails, centipedes, gnats, and mites. On the sixth you might even find a rat gnawing on what was left. On the seventh the steak would be gone, transformed back into roving animal tissue.
“Who is Val?” Bill asked, the only one in the group not to ignore the human element.
“Valencia Waithe,” Goady answered. “She’s sort of our secret farmhand. A lovely woman…” He was interrupted by a knock on the door. Everyone went quiet. Mardin put his finger to his lips. Shhhhhhhh… Goady tiptoed over to the front door and leaned against it while Mardin pushed everyone’s heads down or had them hide behind the couch. The knock came again. Once more. Then it turned into a bang.
“Who’s a good doggy?” they heard someone say outside.
“Dang it Cicero,” Goady muttered.
“Open up Goadphil,” another voice, right behind the door, ordered. “I know you’re harboring some guests in there. Petty minds think alike I guess. You two, go around back. Check the other door.”
“It’s the sheriff,” Goady whispered.
“And at least two deputies,” Mardin added. “You brought criminals into our home?”
“I didn’t know! What did you four do?”
“Nothing, we’ve been set up,” Rosamin said.
“Oh well that’s a relief.”
“Do they have any cause to force their way in here?” Wallace asked as he peeled the corner of a curtain up and examined the yard.
“Well…” Goady started. The scientists stared, wide-eyed. “My associate and I may also be involved in the production and distribution of certain currently-technically-illegal watermelon-flavored alcoholic libations, but that’s hardly a crime worth prosecuting!”
“Your irrigation tanks?” Janet asked.
“Stills,” Mardin admitted. The sheriff pounded on the door again. Whunk! Whunk!
Continued in Part Five