(reading time: 1 hour, 9 minutes)
The Automatic Love Letter
Erin stared at the World’s Fair Hotel. It used to be called that anyway; the sign was taken down a few days ago. A construction crew was busy tearing apart the ground floor, coming and going out of the door like ants, carrying boards of pale new wood that she could smell from across the street.
What might they call it, she wondered. Baked Babes? Ireland on the Grill? Roasted Rabble? Perhaps they thought alliteration was below them. No, they would pick a French name to try and hide it. What was the French word? Enfants? They would all know anyway. Everybody already knew, those bastards. Just like everyone would know if she…
She looked down at the bundle in her arms. Her new boy. He squished his pink cheek against her chest. Two days ago, ten minutes after he was born, in the attic of a friend’s home, she had nearly muttered a name. She’d nearly called him Sean, after her grandfather. She loved the child from the moment she knew he was growing within her, but she could not feel happiness. Two York City was doing everything it could to make her feel nothing but fear. The only relief was that she’d stopped herself. The boy did not have a name yet. If there was no name there was no need for a gravestone. Any stone she saw on the ground could be his. Any time she wanted to mourn she could pick up a pebble and cup it in her hands and see her little boy.
That was if she went across the street and handed him over. The Proposal hadn’t passed yet, but Erin knew it was coming. It was such a certainty that the people setting up shop in the castle were already accepting babies. They couldn’t legally slaughter them yet, so they were kept in cradles just a room away from the unfinished kitchen. Nursemaids tended to them until they would put on their aprons and become waitresses.
The boy who could be Sean was worth a week of bread, apples, and cheese. If he lived he was a sink for far more than that. Erin had no job, no husband… only the waning sympathy of a friend who wasn’t pleased with the stains the boy’s birth had left on her sheets.
The boy cried when her tears struck his forehead and matted his tiny wisp of hair. The tears were just seasoning to them. A pinch of salt. She couldn’t… but she couldn’t keep him. They’d both die in the streets, counting their ribs until they fell into a final sleep. Erin took a step forwards. The toes of her shoes hung over the sidewalk and into the street. It was a simple errand really. One foot dropped.
A pale hand, with nails as white as dove feathers, came in from behind her and stroked her boy’s cheek. The soft fingers picked up one of Erin’s tears. The girl hugged her child closer to her chest and whirled around. She’d never seen such a person before, except in magazines. This other girl was roughly the same age, but time had not weathered her in the same way. She looked like something kept under a glass case, a ceramic cat perpetually licking the back of its own paw.
The cat girl brought her hand up to her face and sniffed the back of it, where Erin’s tear, infused with the scent of her pink little boy, was smeared. She sniffed it again. There was nothing Erin could ever fear more. She clutched Sean, he was Sean, tightly, and turned away. She ran home. There was more dignity in starving than feeding a thing like that.
The cat girl was being escorted by her mother; both wore matching rose-colored dresses. They had umbrellas to keep the daughter’s flawless skin out of the sun. The mother pulled out a large handkerchief and rubbed the back of her daughter’s hand until the Irish stain was gone. Then she chastised her for touching street filth. The girl wasn’t listening. She was smelling. She smelled ten more babes in the building across the street. If she had ever listened to the squawking of her only partially-sculpted mother she would know that was where they were going instead of just hoping it.
They crossed the street, careful to avoid contact with the workmen. There was a separate temporary entrance for those who had actual business with the owners, a door they took. A servant girl appeared and led them to a conference room untouched by the construction. Inside they met a crowd of like-minded men and women who sipped at glasses of champagne and sampled some of the hors d’oeuvres that would eventually be on the menu. Pork served as the substitute until that day.
The cat girl joined a circle of others like her. Eight dignitaries and businessmen had brought their daughters while they did business in Two York. The girls stood the same distance apart from each other, perfectly recreating every photograph of them that had been on the society page in the last week. Among them was Catterine Leckie, but it was hard to tell any of them apart. The girls stared into each other’s eyes silently, waiting for their escorts to retrieve them, give them some food, or tell them to dance.
Strom, Dr. Holmes, and Dr. Nielson did their best to keep the livelier guests entertained. Holmes was caught up in a discussion with the man who would be head chef when the restaurant opened. He was fascinated to hear the exact process by which a pig carcass was split down the middle and cleaned. They talked of soups enhanced by the simmering of marrow-filled bones in the pot for hour after hour, until the liquefied tissue softened the root vegetables and made them savory. Dr. Holmes had never fully considered the beauty of the cooking process.
Simon was tasked with the official entertainment for the evening, and now that the last of the felines had arrived he was free to begin. The servants brought in eight chairs and eight small boards of wood borrowed from the construction.
“It’s time,” Simon said. He clapped his hands and then used them to sweep everyone except the cat women off to the sides of the room. Then he directed the girls into the chairs and passed out stationary and pens to all of them. They held the boards in their lap as writing desks.
“My daughter Hebe has always been one for composition,” one mother whisper-bragged to another. “Her poetry is sublime. It’s like she lives in her own world.”
“We all live in our own worlds,” Simon said. The woman who had whispered looked taken aback. “My apologies if that seemed like eavesdropping,” he told her and the rest of the room. “It’s my desire to be intimate with every wonderful person I meet. Whispers always sound like invitations to lean in. As it so happens, what you have said Madame is an excellent summary of what I am about to show you.” Simon removed his tear catcher from around his neck and twirled it while he spoke.
There was a small hitch. The girls in their chairs, with the tips of their pens already pressed against the paper in anticipation, weren’t looking to his pendant. They just stared into his eyes. I thought they’d be the easiest bunch in the world. They’re like cats after all. When does a cat not follow a piece of string? A lesser mesmerist might not have been able to stop the hitch from growing, but Simon knew how to work with the bare essentials. He used his eyes. They swished back and forth across the row of girls slowly enough to look natural. He kept the pendant going as well, but just to keep the investors confident they were actually getting a show.
“Each of us has a world in our minds. It doesn’t match reality exactly, but if you have a healthy perspective it’s close. Hypnotism doesn’t allow me to control people, just influence that internal world. I can shift the details of the land with all the subtlety of natural weathering. The architect of this invisible world is not you, it is your subconscious. Your lizard brain. The things you hide even from yourself but that define you more than anything you will ever admit.”
They’re smiling, he realized as he looked at the cat women. They were not smiles visible to the rest of the room, but Simon knew how to read every inch of a face, especially a woman’s. They’re following my eyes but I’m not seeing true submission. They’re not letting me in… but they are playing along. That’s what they always have to do, I suppose. Some kind of Lamarckian stumble has made them strange. Those aren’t the eyes of a young woman. They’re pampered predators who know what’s expected. You can let me in girls. You can let it work on you. I promise you’ll love it. If anyone could love you the way you are, it’s me. But you have to let me.
He targeted one of them and let his pupils rest on her one tiny moment longer than the rest. He went down the list of names and faces in his head, acquired from the small talk before the show. She was the one named Hebe, in a yellow dress with a live green June beetle in her hair. It wasn’t a stowaway, but jewelry. The insect was glued to a golden plate attached to a pin in her hair. Starvation must have been imminent, as its legs moved lethargically back and forth. Hebe liked to play, he could see it, and he wanted to get at least one of them to a point of honesty before the exercise was over. He let Hebe see a smile as small as her own. I can play too, his eyes assured her.
“The exercise my lovely volunteers will demonstrate today is called automatic writing. Once I place them in a suggestive state I will release their lizard brains and grant them full control over the ideomotor effect. Your daughters will stare straight ahead. They will not look down at the paper, but they will still write something perfectly legible.”
“And what will you have them write?” someone standing in the crowd asked.
“I will have them write what they have never written. Their innermost composition which was formed in childhood but never released. Whether or not they choose to share what they write is up to them.” Simon stopped pacing but kept his eyes and the pendant going. “You are relaxed,” he told the felines. “You are relaxed because I am here watching over you. You are safe under my gaze. Simon says lower your defenses. Simon says lower your fences, so your innocent souls can frolic in the open.” His eyes stopped on Hebe. He spoke directly to her and hid his intent in general showmanship.
“Simon says trust Simon. He will not let you down. He understands you. Simon will give you everything you want if you only let him.” Hebe’s tiny smile grew imperceptibly. The hypnotist was having trouble deciding whether or not he found the sculpted girl attractive. She was distinct, there was no denying that. She was like a background woman in a famous painting, her face slightly warped by a bubble under the canvas until it gave her an intense stare, an element of purpose and determination never intended for a bauble like her.
“Now that you are completely safe in his arms, Simon says write. Write what you feel. Write what you are.” He bounced his pendant up and snatched it. He gave the girls no more signals; it was up to them now. The scratching of pens was the only sound in the room, until the excitement wore off and the investors started whispering. They might as well have been shouting encouragement to the horse they’d bet on.
“Look at them! Not a single eye on the paper. Incredible. Just incredible.”
“I’m sure Catterine is working on a poem. Look, I can see the breaks. Those are stanzas.”
“This is the beginning of a novel; I can tell.”
“Rachel is going to finish first! She’s on the last line! Are they writing on the backs as well?”
They are committed, Simon thought. He knew for a fact that only Hebe had allowed herself to be hypnotized. That raised the question of how they were writing without looking down, if not by the ideomotor effect. The most obvious possibility was that they coincidentally acquired the skill by regular penmanship practice. They’d performed similar rote tasks so much, or inherited the wrist memories of their mothers’ rote tasks, that eye contact simply wasn’t necessary. Where are their minds then? I can only imagine what women like that are actually thinking about when they’re pretending to be perfect little dolls. What am I saying? I can do more than imagine. Hebe has written it down for me.
“Simon says… finish your thought.” The girls came to the end of their sentences and dotted them with periods. They stood. “Simon says return to the safety of the conscious mind. Simon says share your work with us, if you so desire.” The cat women moved to their families and handed over their papers for approval. They passively absorbed the praise as the crowd once again became disorganized.
Simon put his tear catcher back around his neck. He shook a few hands as he wandered through the room in search of Hebe. He was going to ask to see her paper; it was the only honest one in the bunch. When he spotted her he saw that she had no paper in her hand, but neither did her escorts. She wanted me to see it; I know she did. Why give me the reins if she didn’t? He remembered he was dealing with the artistic image of the cat: sly, stealthy, and mischievous. He reached into his pocket and felt the edge of a paper that hadn’t been there minutes before. Simon unfolded the letter. Somehow, in the midst of the rubbing elbows, she had slipped it into his pocket.
I’m letting you play with me because I know I’m safe here. My parents would stop you if you so much as touched me. You would have to get down on one knee to earn that privilege and even then you would be judged as inadequate. My father says all men are inadequate to be my husband. I believe him. No man has breeding to match mine.
While you are not good enough to be my master, the owner of the ring I wear, you seem like an excellent lover. You’re so playful. My goodness. It must be the hypnosis. I’ve never spoken so freely. I won’t let it be any freer unless your eyes rest on me again.
There they are. You’re demanding I tell you the truth. You want me to fish in the black pool at the back of my mind, that phrenological chilled little pond that is normally slick with ice. You sly man. Here I am holding this giant primordial fish from the bottom of that pit that you made me reel in. It is a strange eyeless gasping thing. Is this what you call the lizard brain? I don’t know whether to be disappointed or not. It’s certainly not a lizard. Should it be? I know that when we climb down the thick gnarled trunk of life from our high branch of the primates we first find lizards before finding fish. Perhaps it means I’m an old soul. Perhaps it means I’m simple.
You’re looking at me again. The truth is pouring out of this pen now like sap from a scored maple. I want you Simon. I want to play with you. My fish mind is made up. You and I must be alone together. It can’t be here or today, even my fish mind knows that. I am watched constantly, so our opportunities will be sparse.
My family will remain in the U.C.A long enough for the early days of this restaurant. After that I will be gone and will likely never return. Frankly, your country is terrible. It smells of wet newsprint and horse manure. I apologize, that was the fish wriggling in my arms again. How odd it is to cede control. I’m only realizing what I’ve written seconds after. It also feels as if I’ve been writing for an hour.
There are those eyes again. I wonder if you’re up to it. You must be the one to create the opportunity. It will look something like this. I’m only ever left alone with others like me. You’ll need a distraction. You will have to ignore the other girls. I know they don’t bother you, because they won’t give you anything. They don’t understand games where they are not allowed to win.
Oh Simon. I want you. The fish is gasping because it can only breathe in a cloud of your breath. We can only have an evening, but I know it will stretch as this letter has in my mind. I will leave claw marks in you. I will break my nails off in the flesh of your back. You are in control now, but it will be my turn then. My passion will push you down. My love will hypnotize you.
“Did one of the girls write that?” Holmes asked Simon. The mesmerist was so startled that he crumpled the letter in his attempts to fold it. He stored it away in his pocket. He could feel the drops of sweat on his forehead, but he knew it would look all the stranger if he actually wiped them away.
“Yes doctor,” he said.
“What was on it? I haven’t heard a word out of these girls this entire time. Why didn’t you have them speak up while they were… relaxed?” Simon didn’t like Holmes. Where the hypnotist had memorized poems and greetings in a dozen languages, the hotel owner had a moustache hair. Where Simon had a colorful wardrobe and a young woman on his arm, Holmes had another moustache hair.
“I don’t think you would want to hear them speak doctor. I’ve read somewhere that the refinements of their form focused so much on neck posture that the larynx is somewhat malformed. Their speaking voices are said to sound like gulls with whooping cough.”
“So their writings must make up for this particular shortcoming,” Holmes suggested. He stared down Simon’s pocket and then sipped at his drink. Everyone else was drinking champagne, but Simon could tell by the scent that Holmes had a glass full of metallic-smelling water. He didn’t trust people who didn’t drink. It meant they were more afraid of their lips loosening than the cat women were.
“Oh they do,” Simon said. “But the thoughts she expressed in the note were private. It would violate my relationship with her to share them.”
“You have a relationship with her?”
“Of course. I’m her hypnotist. I have a relationship with all my patients.”
“Do you really think of them as patients?”
“A patient is a friend. A friend is a lover. A lover is a person. I’m a real people person.”
“It’s no wonder you’re on everyone’s guest list as a man of ill repute,” Holmes flatly mocked.
“I’d rather be on a guest list than at the bottom of a contract. That’s how you rose into this crowd, yes? Good day doctor.” Simon wandered away to find a person with a livelier soul. If I tried to hypnotize him, Simon thought, and then I told him to draw his own soul… he’d color the paper black. Or pencil gray maybe. Then he’d draw the centerpiece. A skeleton in a closet. No matter. It wouldn’t take on him anyway. He would need to open that closet door himself and he’s fonder of closing them in people’s faces. The hypnotist poured compliments on a rotund French woman, all the while staring through a curl of her blonde hair like a spyglass at Hebe. I am on every guest list; it’s about time they put me in charge of making them.
Another Kind of Spontaneous Combustion
Wallace spoke English and three tribe languages. He knew military codes as well as those used in corporate espionage, but he had no idea what Goadphil Pinkwater was trying to communicate with his flailing hands. Only when Mardin pulled his associate’s hands down and then pointed to the basement stairs did he get the idea.
The sheriff and his deputies kept pecking at the sides of the building, looking for a way in without breaking the front door down. The people inside kept quiet enough to hear their footsteps in the tall grass. Wallace, crouched lower than a cricket with a back problem, took one awkward step towards the stairs and prayed none of the floorboards squealed. Everyone followed his lead, except for Janet, who due to her leg issues had no choice but to stand fully and hope no eye crossed the edge of the curtains at that moment.
Once all six of them were safely on the stairs Goady grabbed a switch on the wall and pulled it down slowly. There was a clicking sound as fake floorboards sealed the entrance to the stairs. Their eyes adjusted to the tiny amount of light in the basement from the hidden lamps.
Shhhhhhhh, Goady whispered. Then they followed the sound of his footsteps down the stairs. They heard his rusty key in one of the locks along the wall. Goady slid the door open just as they heard the sheriff bust the one upstairs down. “Damn it. That’s my third door this year.”
They all scurried inside the hidden chamber, which was full of orange light thanks to the lamps hanging from the ceiling. The stomping and scuffing overhead was easy to ignore in the sight of the secret Pinkwater farming operation. The walls were dried soil and stone, with an occasional yellow root sticking out. They felt soft wet loam under their feet, but they couldn’t see it. Nearly every inch was covered by the melon patch. The dark stripes on each turned the basement into a sea of rolling green waves. Docile white-striped bees buzzed lazily between the yellow vine flowers before returning to an equally yellow box hive in the corner. The scientists tiptoed their way through the crops until they reached the back of the chamber, where they could rest on a wooden picnic table behind the copper fermentation tanks.
Bill was ready for the stomping above to end; he felt like a mole waiting for a giant foot to accidentally crash into his burrow. A tiny shower of dirt from the ceiling landed on his hands. Startled, he jumped back from the table and frantically wiped his hands like the dirt was infectious. He bumped something between two of the stills, and that something gasped. Bill turned around and saw the hips and legs of a woman bent at the waist.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he whispered as he dodged another stream of dirt clods. “You must be Valencia.” The woman steadied herself on one of the tanks and grunted as she pulled herself up. She fanned herself lightly with a rag that looked like the older brother of the one hanging out of Goady’s pocket.
“Val I told you not to try and clean the tanks like that. It’s not good for your condition,” Mardin chastised. She smiled and put one hand on the melly protruding under her apron. Bill guessed she was in her late thirties. Her skin was dark brown; it glistened thanks to her perspiration in the underground hothouse. Her dark eyes and frazzled hair disarmed the scientist, who hadn’t even realized he was armed.
“I’m Bill Nimble, how do you?” he asked and extended his hand. She took it and shook before Bill had a chance to lean in and kiss hers. “Delighted to meet you…”
“We should wait for our guests to leave,” Valencia said with a smile as she pointed to the ceiling.
“Oh of course. Of course,” Bill muttered. He returned to the table where they all waited for the sheriff and his cohorts to get bored with their search. Goady assured them there was nothing to find upstairs but one measly watermelon stain from their earlier snack. The fruit itself was in the icebox’s hidden compartment. Then he insisted there was no way they would find any of the three secret entrances to the melon farm. It took nearly an hour, but eventually the footsteps made their way back out the hole they’d made in the front. Only when Cicero barked were Goady and Mardin sure that no threat remained on their property.
“Let me see this generation problem of yours,” Wallace asked. He was starting to feel stretched from all the running and hiding and he thought it might be relaxing to let his mind melt over an engineering problem for a while.
“Oh I can help,” Rosamin volunteered. She rolled up her sleeves. “It’s been weeks since I’ve had any real work.” While Goady started a conversation with Janet, and Valencia did the same with Bill, Mardin brought the other two scientists around to the front of one of the tanks. He rolled several massive melons out of the way so they could access a glass porthole on the front of the tank. He tapped at the glass and then pointed to the carcass of a rat as it drifted by. Its eyes bulged grossly and it wore a skin of greasy bubbles.
“We can open it up, but it’ll stink fiercely,” Mardin warned. Wallace and Rosamin told him to get on with it. He twisted a small valve on the side and opened that rather than opening the top. Since the tank wasn’t operating correctly it was only half-full with the starting fluids. Mardin was not joking about the smell. Rosamin plugged her nose, Wallace tied a cloth around his face, and the lazy bees all buzzed further away. It was the smell of cockroach footprints and worm sweat, of maggot breath and slug tears. All of that was combined with the sick sweetness of fetid melon.
Rosamin held her hair back with the hand not gripping her nose and stuck her head in the side of the tank. She looked down. The surface was not calm, thanks to the abundance of drowning roaches, springtails, and thrips on the fluid’s surface. All of the heavier results of spontaneous generation, like the rats and mice, either rested curled on the bottom or hung somewhere in the middle.
“We’ve cleaned it more times than we can count,” Mardin said. “We found all the holes we could and sealed them with putty, but if we close it up we’ve got maggots in minutes. I’ve never even seen generation that fast.”
“It must have something to do with the concentrated sugars in the juice,” Rosamin reasoned. She bravely dipped her bare hand into the fluid and pulled out a rat carcass by the tail. The rat’s mouth opened; a waterfall of half-dead earwigs poured out and plopped wetly on the hard-packed soil around the tanks.
“You don’t see that every day,” Wallace said. “The high humidity down here probably doesn’t help.”
“We need that for the melons,” Mardin said. Rosamin handed him the tip of the rat’s tail while she fetched her emission goggles. On their base setting they made fine field microscopes. She took the rat back and moved to the picnic table, where she dropped it. The others tried to continue with their conversation while she examined the stinking vermin. She cranked up the focus on the goggles. She needed to see past the hairs and on the skin, so she searched around the tiny claws of the feet, softened by the fermentation fluid to the appearance and consistency of pickled eggs. She found a tiny white worm and did her best to classify it. If she knew the base generational species she could at least target the problem compound that spawned it and started the cycle. With fruit sugars the likeliest culprits were the larvae of fruit flies.
While she worked Wallace and Mardin gave the tank a thorough check-up for rust or other corrosion. Somehow, between the banging of the tank and the scurrying of the earwigs in and out of the cracks on the table, Bill managed to stay focused as he spoke with Valencia.
“I’ve never been anywhere like Potter’s Plot,” he told her.
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” she asked while she rubbed her lower back.
“Every place has its pitfalls. Obviously here it’s the-” He coughed. Perhaps it wasn’t polite to say the town’s biggest problem was growing in her stomach cavity. “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to bring up your… mistake.” It only took him the swish of an eyelash to realize he’d used the wrong word.
“Mistake?” she queried, tilting her head.
“I didn’t mean… I… uhh… It’s just that I know you didn’t intend to… because who would? Aha… ha…” He put his wrinkled hand over his mouth to dam up the inanity.
“It’s not ideal,” she admitted, stroking her abdomen. “It’s been there so long that I hardly notice it these days. Only my back does.”
“How did it happen?” Bill couldn’t stop himself from asking the question. After all he had at least three nursery rhymes floating around in his head about watermelon wariness. It was common knowledge, and Valencia didn’t seem young enough to be a victim of the town’s seed sneaking. “You must have known what would happen if you ate some.”
“I’ll have to give you my whole life story for it to make sense,” she said, trying to shrug it off. Goadphil blew in like a dead animal smell from the side of the road. He handed each of them a glass jar full of pink liquid. Bill immediately set his down after smiling politely.
“In case you two are thirsty,” Goady said. “Don’t worry Mr. Nimble, this is some of my finest you can imbibe, made in our tanks that don’t have rat problems.” He clinked his own glass against Bill’s and drank as he returned to Janet’s side of the table. Bill was going to ignore his drink, occasionally lifting it for a second or two to imply he was willing to engage with it, but then he saw Valencia take hers up with gusto. He copied. After one sip he sputtered and had to wipe his chin. The second it touched his tongue he knew it was high quality, but it was beyond his comfort level; there was enough alcohol in it to send a lochtile belly up. Valencia downed half of hers in one go.
“I have time to hear it,” Bill encouraged. “It could take me a lifetime to finish a glass like this.” Valencia eyed him for a moment. Bill felt like a puppy unsure of what trick his owner wanted to see next.
“I’ve lived my whole life around here,” she started. “When I was growing up my family lived in the servants’ quarters of a manor outside Plot. The man who… employed us… had orchards. He was an unusual man. As a child I saw him as evil; he was the opposite of Saint Nick. He stayed away from us kids most of the time, told our parents to keep us out of sight, but about once a year he’d show up and take something from us. Sometimes it was a toy we’d accidentally left out or a piece of clothes he’d seen us wear that he didn’t like.”
“You don’t see him as evil anymore?”
“No I don’t. I see him as incomplete. He never married. When he took things from us I think he was just trying to get the happiness he saw on our faces. He didn’t understand how we, mere servants, could enjoy our lives more than he could his own. Eventually, when I was nine, he settled on a different strategy. He wanted to make sure that the only happiness he had access to could not leave him.”
“What did he do?” Bill was so caught up in the story he forgot his glass wasn’t full of water and choked on the bright pink concoction a second time.
“One morning he lined all the children up. He employed two other families so there were eleven of us in total. The youngest was six and the oldest fourteen. We had no idea what to think, but we’d been told by our parents to do everything he said. He was their employer; he was the god of our welfare.” Valencia took a moment. She cleared her throat. “He walked up and down examining us. Then he told us to hold out our palms. He dropped a watermelon seed in each little hand.”
“Mumbling spheres…” Bill muttered. The worst thing his parents had ever done to him involved a bar of soap and the word poppycock.
“You are right Mr. Nimble; I knew what it was. I didn’t believe him when he told us it was a vitamin capsule. But there I was with it in my hand. I knew obedience was good. I knew my parents’ employer was powerful. I did compare him to old Saint Nick after all. He was everywhere in our little world. He told us to swallow the seeds.”
“Not despicable Mr. Nimble,” she said. “Sad. He knew the stigma carried by the fruit and he knew that if we were burdened by them we would be less likely to ever leave Plot. Here the melon carries shame, but most carry the melons. I knew what it was but I swallowed it anyway. I really thought the adults in my life had my best interest at heart.”
“Goodness…” Bill said. “He didn’t even let you have any melon along with it? The seed with no gratification? That may be the worst part of it.” Valencia smiled.
“I’ve since rectified that many times,” she said. “Now I can have all the watermelon I want.” She finished off her glass. “You know… Nobody wants to be defined by their mistakes.”
“Oh I do know, believe me!” Bill insisted so enthusiastically that Valencia seemed slightly taken aback. “It’s just that, well, I’m always expected to predict things… the weather. I’m good, I swear. I have an excellent rate of success. But people always remember the rain over the sun, the wrong over the right. Sometimes it feels like I’m employed more as a receptacle for everyday rage than anything else.” Bill dropped back to the bench after realizing he’d slowly risen out of his seat. “How did these two manage to avoid… being burdened?” he asked, pointing to Goady and Mardin.
“Goadphil’s family has always known the ways around it. They never let social mores dictate what went in their mouths. Or what came out of them. And Mardin is a quiet man. If you stay out of the way nobody is bothered enough to see you seeded. It’s a funny thing; some people in town avoid it by intentionally getting fat. It works especially well for men as often there’s no telling a potbelly from a melon unless you see a bee that’s oddly interested in pollinating their navel.”
Bill chuckled, but then came a gnawing urge to know more about her. Now that the bump on her belly had been cleared he wanted the important details, the ones that were more than skin and rind deep. He was denied the opportunity when work on the tank stopped and everyone returned to the table.
“I’m stumped,” Rosamin admitted.
“Perhaps it’s just a bad tank, destined to produce nothing but flea wine,” Janet suggested.
“I take comfort in the fact that nothing we do down here is half as gross as what goes on in this town,” Goady declared.
The sheriff and his deputies returned to their station to have a powwow with their prisoner. They had to tell him his tips were useless and they couldn’t confirm his story. The sheriff wasn’t sure why, but he didn’t want to disappoint the man he’d locked up the moment after he arrived. He didn’t really have a choice; they knew a thief was headed their way and he matched the description the scientists had given him.
Of course he didn’t show up on a lochtile like he was supposed to either. He just walked through the door and turned himself in. His pant legs were wet, but that was hardly evidence he’d ridden in on one. He expressed no anger or frustration when they insisted he sit in a cell until they worked things out. So why was the sheriff so uneasy? It must have been the confidence the man, who called himself Marks, exuded. When the sheriff looked at him through the bars he felt like he was the one in the cage.
“The folks you spoke of seem to have temporarily disappeared,” he told Marks.
“I thought you said you knew right where they were.” Their prisoner was not pleased.
“We had a witness that put them with our resident troublemaker, but he wasn’t in. We searched his place top to bottom and couldn’t find a trace.” The sheriff suppressed a flinch when the man’s hand moved from his knee.
“I thought the law was supposed to catch criminals,” Marks growled.
“As far as we can tell you’re the only criminal here,” the sheriff said. “You stole a lochtile and destroyed an egg. That’s destruction of property a step or two above vandalism.”
“I’m sure you’ll agree it was hardly anything in pursuit of a lawful arrest. You look like you’ve brushed up against the bristly parts of the law once or twice yourself.”
“I am the sheriff. What are you Mr. Marks? Why do you talk like we owe you something?”
“You’ve impeded me. Those four are wanted. I came for their legal bounty. You’ve every reason to help me.”
“So you’ve said… tell me… what exactly are they wanted for again?”
“Theft of a Vanian machine.”
“Was it one of the talking ones?” one of the deputies asked, his face lighting up like a child’s.
“What does that matter?” Marks asked without wanting an answer. He cracked his knuckles. If he wanted to he could break out of that cell, take his gun back, and kill every badge-holder in town, but he wasn’t on the frontier anymore. The treaty-signers murdered the frontier. They amputated it down to the stump. Now if he killed his way out the act would stay on him like skunk spray. Calling himself Marks instead of Majewski afforded an ounce of protection, but he wouldn’t get the blood-repelling effect of being called an explorer like he used to. He would just be an animal gone rabid, running around inside the fences hoping to find a hole.
“I’ve just never seen one of the talking ones,” the deputy said as he tried to tame a few sweaty curls on the back of his neck. “My sister saw a fortune teller one once. It told her she would get married soon and the man she was with proposed to her not three weeks later. I want to talk to one and see how they think.”
“They don’t talk,” the sheriff corrected. “They just tap out code.”
“They don’t think either,” Majewski growled.
“Then how do they answer questions?” the deputy asked. Majewski stood up from his cot and put his hands on the bars. They could hear his skin tightening against the metal.
“I’d like out of here and I’d like my weapon returned to me,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Why don’t you answer the deputy’s question,” the sheriff suggested. He wanted to make this Marks do something, jump through some kind of hoop, just to prove he was still in charge of the situation. All the same, his feet instinctively moved to the gun locker when the man asked for his weapon. The sheriff didn’t like the reflexive obedience he could produce.
The lawman looked down and saw Majewski’s gut squishing into the spaces between the bars. He didn’t have a melly. Maybe he was thirsty. If he calmed down and got his gun he might be more likely to partake in a fine glass of lemonade with a little something extra lodged in the straw. “I’ll tell you what Mr. Marks. I’ll grab you a refreshment while I’m retrieving your iron. We’ll sit down and get this worked out.”
“Thank you,” Majewski said. The sheriff left the room, wondering where he left the small bag of seeds. He hadn’t seen a watermelon in three years, but the unwanted seeds were easy enough to purchase from a few places along the river.
The sheriff supposed he was, as Majewski said, brushing up against the bristly parts of the law, but some laws were higher than others. Potter’s Plot was a godly place, and no amount of sieve-talk or ‘responsible consumption’ could be allowed to stop that. The juice was a sin. Satan’s spring water. But the seed… The seed kept everyone in the right mind. The bulge was always there, reminding you of your wretchedness. It kept the young people humble. It’s hard to stray when you can’t see your feet. God’s help would be needed to keep those roots inside you from anchoring your ghost to the world below.
“Machines can’t think,” Majewski reaffirmed while the sheriff was out of the room.
“It sure sounds like thinking to me,” the deputy responded. He could just muster up defiance as long as there were bars between them. Majewski paced back and forth.
“A lot of things look like they think,” he began. “Thinking isn’t about words or stringing them together. It’s about awareness. A bug too stupid to jump out of the way of a boot blocking out the sun isn’t a thinker. A cow that doesn’t attack the men marching it out of the pasture is not a thinker. A machine content to answer questions without asking its own is not a thinker.”
“So you’ve spoken with one.”
“Used one you idiot… and no I haven’t. I know it’s not a thinker because it’s just gears and wires and lights. It’s an adding machine: a fact-stacker. If a lot of us can’t think then it sure as hell can’t.”
“What do you mean ‘if a lot of us can’t think’? Everybody thinks. I’m thinking you’re a bit strange right now.”
“You don’t get out much do you son?”
“What does that got to do with anything? My mind’s as sharp as anything out of the hollow.”
“You’re about as sharp as a turtle’s gums. I told you it was about awareness. Putting two and two together isn’t thinking if you can’t respond the way you should.”
“Okay. You seem suspicious. That’s one. Those other folks that came through here, that you say are thieves, seemed nice. That’s two. We responded by locking you up. What step did I miss in this situation?”
“Seeing as those four are actually troublemakers, you did the worst thing you could’ve done. The town would be better served by a bug that isn’t under the impression it can think.”
“Let me guess,” the deputy said, growing bold enough to step close to the cell. “You’ve given yourself the honor of being the greatest thinker in the hollow.”
“I wouldn’t call it smart to live in a hole.”
“Just so I know for the future,” the deputy said sarcastically, “why don’t you give me the general rundown on who’s a thinker and who isn’t.” He took another step forward. He got his first good look at the man’s eyes. They weren’t the eyes of anybody named Marks. They were the eyes of somebody who used to have a title like major or commander but had it washed away by a wave of someone else’s blood.
“I’ll ignore your tone and answer honestly,” Majewski said. “People on the move are thinkers. City folk and townsfolk alike are turtles, waiting for the thinkers to bring them what they need. Explorers were thinkers and every goddamn savage that resisted them wasn’t. Especially Indians. Nothing but a bunch of squatting morons who treat animals as sacred because they don’t bother to understand them.”
“I know Indians smarter than you,” the deputy whispered.
“No you do not. All they do is sit on their land like dragons sleeping on treasure.”
“They can do what they want with their own treasure.”
“It’s not theirs. It belongs to the men who leave the comfort of home.”
“They’ve got their own country. Their machines are just as big and fancy as any of ours.”
“They only took to that after we brought it,” Majewski seethed. “They put it on like a hat. They didn’t know a country from a camel before we showed up.”
“You honestly think an Indian’s the same as a Vanian machine?”
“No, they’re worse. A machine doesn’t try to sit at the lunch counter.” The sheriff returned with Majewski’s pistol and a glass of lemonade cloudy enough with pulp to hide the dark spot in the straw. He set both items down and went to unlock Majewski’s cell. He invited him to sit down at a desk. Majewski instead holstered his postil and paced around the room.
“We just received confirmation by carrier pigeon that there are arrest warrants for each of those four,” the sheriff told the deputy. He turned to Majewski. “I didn’t hear anything about you having special privilege to threaten people or destroy their property.”
“I’ll admit I might’ve gotten carried away,” Majewski said. “Do you know why I followed those four down here? It’s not the bounty. There were bigger rewards in Two York for turning in rail robbers.”
“Please explain your zealousness.”
“That Vanian was taken from the World’s Fair. You folks have any celebrations down here? Something uniquely yours?”
“We just had our preserves festival,” the deputy mentioned.
“Sure,” Majewski said, suppressing a snort. “I consider myself a very patriotic man. Sure that contraption was made in a flea-bitten part of Europe, but the fair represents Two York. If it looks bad, my people look bad. I can’t abide by that. That’s why I’m after them. That’s why it should be a Two Yorker who brings them in.” Majewski raised the glass to his lips. The sheriff’s toes curled in his boots. Majewski sipped from the edge without using the straw. “Fine lemonade. Thank you sheriff.”
“It’s just hollow hospitality,” he said with an anxious smile. “You’re saying you want to come with us when we go to arrest them?”
“I don’t want to be a burden,” Majewski said. He was never the best at playing the straight arrow, but after about ten minutes of settling into the role he started to sound believable. “I want to do as much as I can. I want to help you catch them and I want you to let me escort them back where they belong. I can buy some leg chains off you to keep them together.”
“I don’t think we have leg chains big enough for the sasquatch they brought with them,” the deputy said.
“Is the animal with them?” Majewski asked. Taking out Tycho separately would probably cut his troubles in half.
“No,” the sheriff said, “the sasquatch is staying with Dirk and the lochtiles. We had Dirk check already. It’s still there. He said it even offered to help with some of the chores.”
“I’ll go there first and put it down,” Majewski said. Another sip from the edge of the glass. The sheriff watched the level of lemonade drop. He wondered if he should have put it lower in the straw.
“You can’t just put it down,” the deputy said. “It’s not a thief. Those things are smarter than…” the young man remembered who he was talking to.
“Some Indians call them their forest brothers,” Majewski said with a devious grin. “I’m inclined to let them have that comparison. There’s nothing illegal about shooting a criminal’s pet when it’s wandering around town without a tag. It’s a public service.”
“I think the thieves should be the priority,” the sheriff said. “You can come with us Mr. Marks, assuming you behave yourself and defer to my orders. Now there’s just the matter of finding where they’re hiding.”
“We should go back to the house,” Majewski said. Another hearty gulp.
“Pinkwater’s? We checked that place top to bottom,” the deputy said.
“You said he made liquor?”
“He used to. The stuff’s outlawed in Plot now. What’s your point?”
“If you’re making liquor in your home where are you keeping the equipment?”
“The cellar,” the sheriff said. “That house doesn’t have a cellar. I checked every door in there.”
“If you’re making illegal liquor you probably go to the trouble of hiding the entrance,” Majewski said. Already his disguise wore thin. If the people around him got much dimmer he might just decide bullets were easier than manners. “I have some experience finding secret rooms. My money is on a hidden cellar. We should go tonight.” They were all aware that even though Proserpine’s light was constant, Potter’s Plot itself was tucked away behind enough stone that the rhythmic swaying of the sun back and forth produced a weaker cycle of light every fourteen hours.
“Tonight? Why not now, while the light is with us?” the deputy asked.
“Thieves always assume the law operates during the day,” Majewski argued. “Their guard is down at night. We can catch them sleeping.”
“Do you think the cloak and dagger is necessary?” the sheriff asked. “I met them; they don’t seem like much of a threat. Two women… one of them can barely walk. Only one of them looks under fifty.”
“You look pretty harmless yourself,” Majewski said, “and yet…” He stalked forward and put his lips on the end of the straw. He flattened it between his lips, rolling them back and forth. “I can see there’s something else to your hollow hospitality.” He grabbed the straw with his lips, pulled it out of the glass, and blew. The tiny seed shot out of the straw and struck the sheriff on the forehead. He flinched like he’d actually been shot and nearly fell backward out of his chair. The seed landed on the desk and spun; for a few seconds its slowing was the only sound in the room.
“How… how did you know?” the sheriff asked; he didn’t bother to straighten himself in the chair.
“I’m a thinker,” Majewski said. “It wasn’t hard to notice all the bulges around here. And I’m already familiar with the concept of dragging. It’s an excellent strategy for controlling the deaf, dumb, and blind.”
“What do you mean dragging?” the deputy asked. He walked over to the desk and draped a handkerchief over the seed. He wasn’t comfortable with it just sitting out in the open like that; it needed to be covered. It needed to be an implication and not a seed. A suggestive bump. Something that spawned questions but didn’t encourage them to be voiced.
“I mean dragging down,” Majewski said. He took a step toward the deputy, who in turn took five steps back. The bounty hunter reached down with one hand and ripped the handkerchief away, starting the seed spinning again. “You’re a miserable wretch and you know the only way you can forget it is if everyone else is in the same situation. So you drag them down. You force them to be like you and then you tell them they need to be ashamed so they’ll stay in line. I’ve read my bible and I know it’s a lot more effective than any of the wars god ever waged.” Majewski stopped the seed with one finger; he picked it up and examined it. “That sort of thing never worked on me, no matter how much the preacher or my auntie wanted it to. Sometimes I had to stand naked in the corner of the church because of the way I looked at little Margaret Rambler. It didn’t bother me any. I’ve never been ashamed of what I am.”
He popped the watermelon seed in his mouth, between two blocky molars, and bit down with a sickening crack. Crick! He chewed vigorously, sighing with pleasure the entire time as if it was a warm piece of apple pie. He chewed and chewed and chewed until the seed was so completely destroyed there was no chance of germination. Then he swallowed, licked his lips, and loudly gulped down the last third of his lemonade. Then he turned to the sheriff.
“Since you tried that little trick on me, I get to be myself again. You’re going to do everything I say until I have those three in chains and we’re on our way back to Two York.”
“Three?” the deputy questioned. “I thought there were four of them.”
“I’ll be killing the Indian,” Majewski said plainly.
“We… we don’t have to listen to you,” the sheriff stammered. He still couldn’t pull himself out of the chair. He heard the snap of fangs in the back of Majewski’s voice, and it made him feel like his socks were bulging with his own liquefied leg muscles.
“You do have the choice of dying instead,” Majewski clarified. “I can wriggle out of any charges brought on behalf of this place. All I have to do is say one word about your little seed perversion and this town will blow up with scandal and charges of your own. I don’t actually give a shit about any of you though, so all the same I think we should get this over with. You do as I say and your little melon patch can stay just the way it is.”
“Do I have your word you’ll leave as soon as you have them?” the sheriff asked.
“I just gave you the damn words,” Majewski grumbled. “Now send your deputy around town.”
“I want everything Potter’s Plot has to come down on them. Tell all your people that disrespectful foreign thieves have escaped the seed and tell them where Pinkwater’s place is so they can meet us there. There needs to be no chance of escape. There needs to be a mob.”
The artificial light was constant in the cellar, but the slow switch to the dimmer night was still obvious thanks to the bees returning to their box and the increasing frequency of cricket chirps. Rosamin had fallen asleep sitting at the table, leaning back against the stone. She had deep red marks around her eyes from wearing her goggles for so long. Still the solution to the Pinkwater spontaneous generation problem eluded her. Mardin had draped a quilt over her that only smelled lightly of mildew.
Despite the general roundness of the chamber, Bill and Valencia had discovered a small spot behind a support beam where they could stand relatively separate form everyone else. They spoke excitedly, their awkward laughter occasionally threatening to rouse Rosamin. Bill looked like he’d just come to understand the fascinating aspects of his own life; his enthusiastic gesticulating caused him to accidentally slap Valencia’s melly several times. She was quick to forgive him and tell him to go on.
Mardin and Janet discussed recipes; baked goods turned out to be a mutual passion. Their spirited argument, between Mardin’s insistence that powdered sugar was the most essential ingredient and Janet’s insistence that the best was actually a rare South American extract that tasted of cardamom and pistachio, was punctuated by Mardin’s frequent checking over his shoulder. He looked for any sign of Goady, who had left with Wallace some time ago to make sure the turtle trail was clear for their guests to use as an escape route.
“They should’ve been back by now,” he eventually said when his worry overpowered his enthusiasm for pastries.
“Should I send Bill and Rosamin out to look for them?” Janet asked. At the sound of her name Rosamin sprang into consciousness and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.
“That’s… that’s something you can do,” she babbled. “Because I am very awake. I was just,” she yawned loudly, “mulling over a few possible solutions for the… the rats and crawly things.”
“It might be best to let the crawly things be,” Bill said. He pulled Valencia behind him by the hand. “Who are they hurting?” Rosamin expected Mardin to chime in that while their business wasn’t a person it certainly was worth saving, but the stocky little man just stared at the hidden door with his ears perked up like a rodent’s. Suddenly, he walked bowlegged through the melons until he hit the middle of the patch and put one hand to his ear.
“I hear something,” he said. “They’re coming back.” Moments later they all heard it, two bodies huffing and puffing and scrambling to get inside. The cellar door slammed shut. Feet scuffled so frantically that dirt clouds slipped under the wood panels. Goady and Wallace burst into the patch. Wallace had a long gash on his forehead that dripped blood all the way down his face and into his shirt. Goady’s vest was torn and all the buttons had popped off.
“The turtle trail is temporarily out of commission,” Pinkwater blurted as he stood against the wall and held his side. “We’ve got to… We need… It’s time to abandon the homestead!”
“What?” Mardin and Valencia gasped.
“Take nothing with you but your weapons,” Wallace told his own people. “Hurry damn it!” Rosamin scrambled away from the table, bashing her knee in the process. She hissed both from that pain and the sting of once again donning her emission goggles. Wallace ran through the melons, crushing a few as he went, to get to his shotgun.
“What’s going on?” Janet asked as Mardin helped her to her feet.
“We ran into the whole town!” Goady shouted. “They’re storming through the woods and along all the paths. I don’t know why they’re coming here, but sure as a mortician they’re upon us!”
“Dirk’s is our only hope,” Wallace said. “There aren’t enough lochtiles for all of them to give chase.”
“Additionally we need to retrieve Tycho,” Janet reminded. Wallace nodded.
“Our business!” Valencia moaned. “Goady… the Pinkwater name! We’re all the sense that’s left in this town.”
“That’s true Val,” he admitted. “But it’s time for us to go somewhere that knows the value of sense. Grab the seed bags. We can always plant again.” They were nearly ready to depart when the noise of the crickets ceased. They didn’t even have a chance to feel the cold in their throats that a dreadful moment of silence normally allotted. Pounding feet stomping through the grass and twigs. The rattling of lantern handles. Incomprehensible shouting. Potter’s Plot was all around the house, banging on the walls. Paumf! Something struck the panel of wood upstairs that had been nailed over the broken door; they were breaking it down. Paumf!
“Is there another way out?” Wallace asked.
“No,” Mardin said, his shoulders sinking. “We’re surrounded.”
“We’ve got a maximum of five minutes before they find their way down here,” Wallace estimated. Paumf!
“All of this over avoiding those seeds?” Bill questioned.
“Something tells me they know we’re wanted,” Wallace said as he counted his shells again.
“What do they think you did?” Goady asked.
“It’s hardly worth prosecuting,” Rosamin said with a nervous smile. Goady smiled back. “Everyone out there is acting like they’ll skip the prosecution phase.” Paumf!
“They’ll probably just hold you down and make you swallow four or five so you can never walk again,” Mardin said. They all backed up behind the fermentation tanks. Paumf! Bill grabbed every shoulder around him and kept his head down. Maybe they wouldn’t notice him if he was very quiet. They heard the panel crack and splinters clatter against the floor. A swarm of feet stormed the upper floor. Dust and dirt clods fell on them like snow.
“Do we have anything we can distract them with? Something that can give us a window to run by?” Wallace asked. He snapped his fingers to make sure he had Goady, Mardin, and Valencia’s attention. “Hey! Anything? Do you keep dynamite down here by chance?”
“Dynamite? No!” Valencia said. “We’re not miners! All we’ve got is watermelons, fertilizer, and some bags of yeast and sugar.”
“Even if we had dynamite we’d blow ourselves up trying to get out of here,” Bill said, without raising his head. Valencia put one hand on his forearm to calm him. Inspiration struck Rosamin like Hephaestus’ hammer; it throbbed behind her goggles as she leapt forward and popped open the hatch on the malfunctioning tank.
“Unless we make a bomb without any fire!” she shouted. “We can make a hell of a distraction with what we’ve got!”
“What do you mean?” Valencia asked. Wallace stood.
“The spontaneous generation,” he whispered.
“Exactly!” Rosamin confirmed. “There’s already a reaction going on! We just need to accelerate it! We can load the tank with sugar and nutrients! Then we seal it and let the pressure build. If we’re lucky it’ll go before they get in here! What’s more distracting than a tidal wave of bugs and mice?”
“Hurry! Get the supplies!” Wallace ordered. He clapped his hands and set Goady, Mardin, and Bill to work. Rosamin directed them further and poured everything they gave her, in carefully calculated amounts, into the tank. Her lips moved as she worked, silent frantic arithmetic to make sure each cup of sugar was necessary. She tapped her emission goggles and burned a tiny opening in a bag of yeast.
“We need something to protect us when it goes off,” Valencia said. Goady told her to find something. With her melly held in one hand she waddled around the patch desperately searching. As luck would have it there was something, rolled up against the wall and covered in dirt since it hadn’t been used in months. Valencia bent down as far as she could and started dragging the rolled tube back towards the tanks. It was a thick tarp they used in the winter to protect the plants from frost. “Everyone, get under here!”
Rosamin emptied the last bag of fertilizer and stuck her head inside. The mixture was already bubbling. Rat tails wriggled in the foam and gnats flew around in what air was left. She closed the hatch and pulled with all her might to make sure the seal was perfect. She smacked the side of it and the tank lurched in response. The microscopist dropped back to the dirt floor and scurried over to the tarp; Valencia held one side of it up while everyone scrambled under it and tucked their heads down. Rosamin was the last one inside. She grabbed the edge of the tarp and curled it in her hands, trying to bury it in the dirt in front of her so it could keep the inevitable surge of vermin out… at least for a moment.
The trapdoor to the cellar was ripped from its hinges and sent sliding down the stairs. The good people of Potter’s Plot fell all over each other in their attempts to get into the basement. Hands and hatchets started to smack and hack at the thin wooden wall hiding the watermelon patch. Rosamin snuck a peek at the tank. Its body groaned as it warped, making sounds like dents being banged out. Then there was a distinct hissing.
“Everyone brace yourselves,” Goady warned. He hugged Mardin. Every hand that wasn’t holding the edge of the tarp down grabbed someone else’s back or thigh to stabilize. The shaking of the wood became like thunder, with lightning strikes as sharp edges of metal broke through and glinted in the artificial light. Then the hissing surged and overpowered the clamor of the crowd. Something occurred to Rosamin.
“There’s no fire… but there will be shrapnel!” she yelled to her friends. She didn’t know if they could hear. The hissing was so loud now that she rolled the edge of the tarp under her shoulder so she could cover her ears. “Perhaps we should’ve-”
Baushhhhhhh! The metal of the tank split down the side and then instantly exploded upward. The force tore a gaping hole in the ceiling and shredded the floor above. Everyone under the tarp was thrown up against the wall; the tarp was temporarily sealed from the explosive residue by a few lucky pieces of shrapnel pinning it to the wall. They did not struggle to get free right away, as they could feel the immense, bulging, writhing pressure against the tarp as millions of legs skittered over it. A rain of insects came down through the hole in the ceiling with a sound like a downpour of dry rice.
A wave of filthy, buzzing, chirping, humming creatures smashed into the wooden walls, knocking them flat. The flood of creeping things absorbed the mob in an instant. No piece of clothing was safe as they made themselves cozy in underwear and hair. Buried under feet of such creatures, even the lanterns were extinguished. The cellar became a sea of pill bugs, dragonflies, shrews, millipedes, moles, mantises, crane flies, jumping spiders, maggots, house flies, ladybird beetles, harvest mice, springtails, house centipedes, weevils, moths, rats, and a thousand other spontaneously generated species. Those foolish enough to cry out got a mouthful. It was best to pinch your nose shut, close your eyes tight, and hope your ears didn’t smell very interesting.
Under the tarp their ears rang from the explosion. Wallace pulled the shrapnel out of the wall, freeing them up to move as one. They all held the tarp up and started wading through the bugs and rodents, which were still waist high. Janet felt a skink climb up her leg and thanked her luck it wasn’t anything more sinister.
Rosamin was the only one among them who knew the odds. If her calculations were correct, each life form had a 6.2% chance of being generated as a toxic or venomous species. It would be a miracle if they got out of there without at least a few ant stings or spider bites. As if on cue she felt a shooting pain in her ankle. The pain was hot, which helped her convince herself it was a hornet or a bumblebee instead of a black widow. When some of her hearing came back she heard Wallace shouting for them to keep moving forward. She felt the tarp tug in front of her so she kept walking. She heard Bill yelp; either he’d been snagged by a mantis or had stepped on the prone limb of one of their attackers. They crossed over the flattened wood paneling while ignoring the banging sounds made by the people underneath. The swell of insects steadily got lower as they flew away, skittered up the stairs, and burrowed into the surrounding earth.
“Out this way!” Goady shouted, pulling the tarp into an awkward shape as he took the lead. The stairs were all but invisible with bugs, and every footfall created a thick phlegm of brownish fluids from their crushed bodies. A heavy brown toad, created by the explosion and then wedged into a ceiling beam by its force, finally dropped down and landed on the tarp, on Valencia’s head to be specific. It hopped between their craniums, making its way from Valencia to Bill to Janet to the grass. They’d done it. They were outside the basement. The cool air of the false night soothed their itchy ankles and calmed the remaining bugs lodged in their clothes.
They threw off the tarp. Now that their arms were free they could smack the living residue of the explosion away as they rushed down the turtle trail and put distance between them and the furious crowd. Valencia and Bill yelped when they heard a shot from behind them that severed a branch overhead. Wallace warned them to keep moving.
The shot, of course, came from Warclaw; it would not have missed but for the wasp stings around his eyes that had them nearly swollen shut. He wished to pursue, despite the cluster of swollen ticks, like bunched grapes, clinging to the delicate flesh on each side of his groin, but then the effect of the stings became complete. He couldn’t see anything. Warclaw was forced to sit at the side of the cellar door, listening to the screams, moans, and shudders of the people in the basement as they picked themselves up and recovered.
Unbridled rage boiled his eyes under the red swollen skin. He ground his teeth together like millstones, creating a bitter powder from the remains of a bit of beetle carapace that had stuck to his uvula during the blast. He had to admit he wasn’t expecting that. He’d seen every dark corner of a frontier war, but never anything like that. It was like one of those Indian folktales he used to smack the men under his command around for repeating. They were always about some impossible natural nonsense: stealing the moon, burying bones to grow people, coyotes marrying rabbits… Now one of them, a brief swim in an ocean of animals, was inextricable from his life.
Warclaw pulled the hammer back on his gun. People started to emerge from the cellar, smelling of acrid ant-acids and watermelon rind. They were too traumatized to pay much attention to the man sitting silently with his eyes swollen shut. Even without being able to see he wanted to shoot into the crowd, if only to shut them up. Potter’s Plot cost him everything. If the scientists got more than two hours ahead of him down a river, he would lose them completely. If they got out of Proserpine Hollow the only clue he had was their eventual destination: Transylvania. That was the next frontier.
It was easy to see why everyone signed up to be Dirk’s cousin. Not only did he keep himself away from the main political element of Potter’s Plot, he’d even hidden Tycho from them when they’d come to shoot him. He showered Janet with compliments over the ape’s training; he’d apparently been a huge help with reorganizing his facilities and cleaning the water stables. As a result, he was more than happy to provide two of his finest lochtiles, trained to return on their own upon journey’s end, free of charge.
Tycho took up Janet and helped her aboard. They didn’t linger. Goady, Mardin, and Valencia opened an aged bottle of their finest pink rum snagged from the cellar, more than a generation and a half old, poured a little out on the land, a little out in the river, and drank the rest as the reptiles departed. It was time to dig their way out of the hole and see the true sun once more.
The knife squealed against the plate. Goosebumps rolled across Strom Dilcourt’s arms, shoulders, and even his thighs. He stopped cutting; he was definitely through the meat. It didn’t have to happen yet though. It just made sense to do all of the cutting at once so the eating could go uninterrupted. It was a tactic to help him savor every last bite.
It doesn’t have to be every bite, he reasoned. There’s some fat there… You don’t have to eat the fat to be polite. Strom moved onto the next piece and cut it in two. In four. In eight. Any smaller and it would be hash. He grabbed half a lemon from a small tray in the middle of the table.
He did it quietly to avoid the attention of Lord Leckie, who was seated across from him. His caution was unnecessary, at least for the next few minutes, because Leckie and his daughter Catterine, seated next to him, were scarfing down their portions. Catterine ate so quickly that some of it caught in her throat. Heeeeccchhh, she wheezed. The piece did not dislodge. Heeeech! Heeeek! She didn’t excuse herself. Strom’s goosebumps bulged, feeling the size of screw-heads. He kept watching the girl; whatever she hacked up would be less disgusting than what was on his own plate. It was about the time in the natural process of choking that her face should’ve gone red or purple, but the girl didn’t have enough color in her for that. There wasn’t even any concern in her eyes, but the nasty scraping sounds in her throat kept getting louder.
“Catterine drink some water,” her father said as he took a sip from his own glass.
“Catterine, the water. Mind your father.”
The girl swiftly grabbed a napkin and emptied her mouth into it. She covered it completely, but Strom could see the wet maroon bulge it left in the napkin. Now that there was no point to it, she obeyed her father and took a sip of her water. Even though her ordeal was over, the sounds of it were still all around. Apparently this odd sort of calm choking was a common complication of eating for the cat women.
The restaurant at the base of the World’s Fair Hotel, Enfant de Terre, wouldn’t officially open for another three nights, but its investors were enjoying a taste of its delicacies early to reward their efforts. It was all possible thanks to the terror in the streets. The combustion had not slowed; there were more scorch marks in the street than cracks now.
Normal legislation took months to pass, but the worries of mothers who didn’t want their children popping like firecrackers overpowered all things rational. A local ordinance, based on recommendations from the academy, approval by the Board of Health, and a surprisingly small number of greased hands, was pushed through to start the city’s recovery. It was argued to be far more effective than any quarantine. The lack of approval from the biggest snake oil institute in the region did not help, the same went for the Chinese neighborhoods in Two York that had opted for masks, but still they succeeded.
It was now legal for infants, providing proof of certain ancestries, to be sold by their parents or legal guardians to producers and distributers of food up to one year of age. Despite engineering much of this, Strom and his associates weren’t even the first to take advantage. The canneries beat them to it. Mere hours after the passage of the legislation you could find tins of babe in brine or artichokes and child offal in sauce on the market shelves. Everyone realized the availability implied butchering before the Modest Proposal was passed, but what were a few extra days of safety from the spawn of infectious hordes?
Strom couldn’t blame his chefs for the nausea he felt. They were doing a stupendous job dressing up the meat: fricassee, confit, smoking… The portion on his plate was completely deboned, slathered in a sweet brown sauce with more than a dozen herbs, and served on a bed of young lettuce and chopped parsnips. It looked delicious, but it was the glaze of awareness that stalled his fork.
He wondered if his portion had been dished up by the newest trainee in the kitchen: H. H. Holmes. The man had approached him in a state of near-giddiness a while ago and asked for training sessions with the head chef. Strom saw no reason to turn down the man whose building they nested in. He did ask the doctor why, and the reply he got was something about developing a hobby. Why an accomplished physician would want to work as an understudy chef eluded Dilcourt, but he had bigger things to worry about.
He couldn’t wait much longer. The Lord was bound to notice. Part of him wondered if he could slip the plate onto the floor and let Catterine lick it clean. It was truly a shame her breeding hadn’t favored the image of a dog.
“How is yours Strom?” Leckie asked. Dilcourt popped a piece in his mouth frantically and chewed. Twice. Then he swallowed. Then he drank his glass of wine. He poured another. Suddenly the old man looked like he needed a toilet immediately, but he managed to compose himself and speak.
“Stupendous,” he said. “It’s very lean. Very lean. It’s lean.”
“Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always preferred it stewed in a big pot with potatoes and spinach greens,” Leckie reminisced. “There was a girl born a few years ago back home from a family with a long history of rotundity. Every bit of her was sweet like the best chestnuts, even her eyes.”
“That… that sounds lovely,” Strom said. I do not see a pair of eyes floating in a stew. I see the future. I see enough money to buy the support columns of any philosophy I choose. It doesn’t have to be this one. It won’t be this one… but it must look this way for now. This is how the power is structured in the world at the moment. I’m only this way for one second on the clock of my life.
“I hate to interrupt your meal,” Leckie said, leaning in anyway, “but might now be a good time to discuss the biggest snag in the rug?”
“You mean the dissenters,” Strom said. His fork clattered back to his plate as he fumbled for another lemon half and doused his meal in acidic juices. Perhaps they will break it down before it touches my mouth again. “I’m not overly concerned at this point. Their original schedule is completely off. They couldn’t even reach Transylvania before the Proposal passed.”
“You shouldn’t relax,” the Lord whispered under the cover of another bout of meatball-making in Catterine’s throat. “Don’t underestimate the Vanians. They’re unpredictable; you never know what cause they will next decide is worth their valuable time and their polished effort.”
“I have gotten word from Mr. Majewski. He took it upon himself to follow them and prevent their boarding of a ship.”
“I was under the impression he was a killer.”
“He is, but he has failed so far due to rotten luck. I’ve tried to call the man off, but it doesn’t seem to be taking. He is a sweeper; you could hang him for a day and cut him down, but he’d stand right up and continue on.”
“Our holdings here have become significant,” Leckie said without even the hint of a smile. He looked ready to take his next bite from Dilcourt’s exposed hand. The chairman put his palms on his knees. “Right now the Proposal could be seen as temporary, an emergency measure until your boom-pox is under control. I’d like to see it become permanent. I think Two York has the potential to rival London in its greatness and I’d like nothing more than to keep a second home in its realized potential.”
“We’ve come so far already…” Strom said. He thought about mentioning the Proposal’s likelihood to stick around given that it didn’t do anything about adult carriers of the disease, but he thought better than to mention this out loud; there were plenty of people shouting the weaknesses of their plan in the streets already.
“Should they get to Transylvania,” Leckie went on, “I’ve got some people in mind who could prevent their return.”
“Who would dare touch them in Transylvania? How would they even get in?”
“They’ve been planning to get in on their own for a long time,” Leckie whispered. He was leaning so far forward now he was in danger of wiping his shirt across the remaining sauce on his plate. “They call themselves the Seal of the Divine Image. That’s the English translation anyway.”
“I’ve heard something about them,” Strom said with a nod. He picked up his fork, loaded with meat, and then pretended that something occurred to him so he could lower it again. “They used to live in one of the regions the Vanians expanded into before they put up those walls. In addition, they have something of a religious obsession with the human image.”
“It’s god’s image they fawn over,” Leckie corrected. “If you remember your scriptures, the image of man is merely a weaker expression, a dilution if you will, of the image of god.”
“The Vanian machines in particular offend them yes?”
“Oh yes. Nothing offends them more. Not only were they pushed from their homeland, but it was then desecrated, its metals and woods put to use making abominations that mimic the divine spark of life.” Heeeeeeeech. He poured his daughter another glass of water, but she’d already finished choking and was now staring at a blank space on the wall. “This is what’s said anyway. I couldn’t care less if the Vanians want to talk to their adding machines and their stoves.”
“What dealings do you have with the Seal?”
“Without funds, rebels are little more than weasels rooting through refuse,” was the Lord’s answer. “The Vanians won’t accept foreign investment, so we’re forced to invest in their downfall.”
“So the Seal, on your suggestion, would mount some kind of incursion to interfere with Miss Bluff-Polk?”
“It’s not as simple as all that. The Seal already has something in motion. They’ve recently stolen a few of the Vanian machines on their own and had them modified.”
“As machines of war, something the Vanians have explicitly forbidden. They’re very excited about the irony of the whole affair. They want to see the Vanians destroyed by the idols they built. It just so happens that this assault will take place at their academy of science, the same facility where your dissenters will be housed. I see no reason why a donation couldn’t be made that allows the attack on the Vanians’ research to coincide with their visit, do you?”
“I do not,” Strom said.
“It is settled then. Now, onto the toughest debate of the evening…” He whipped open his menu. “Whatever am I going to have for dessert?” The Lord smiled. Strom noticed a stringy piece of something stuck between his teeth.
Continued in Part Six