The Caloric Kiss: A Pseudoscience Tryst (Part Six)

The Next Chapter

Four days had passed since their escape from Potter’s Plot.  Proserpine Hollow was now behind them and fresh open air filled their lungs like soda bubbles.  They didn’t realize how much the green light of Proserpine had drained them until they squinted in true sunlight.  With nowhere to go in particular, Goadphil, Mardin, and Valencia were still traveling with the scientists.  Goady and Mardin both had taken trips outside the hollow, but Valencia had spent every second of her life within that cavern.  Her first rays of true sun painted a look of divine revelation over every inch of her.  Bill took it upon himself to explain to her all the glory of an atmosphere so vast you couldn’t see its sides.

“While you’d never get anything worse than a thunderstorm in a hollow, out here we have the great terrors of maelstroms!  Hail storms!  Fire whirls over volcanoes!  And the lightning!  Nothing like in the hollow…  All that stone and those ores diffuse the electricity in the air.  Hollow lightning is barely more than a tiny jolt of static.  Real lightning cracks the ground and turns it into glass.  Honestly, glass!  I have a piece of it back home in its own case… a lightning tube found out in a tribes desert.”

“You will have to show me some time,” Valencia said.  Some variation of that response was all she could offer to most of what he said.  Her life was now as open-ended as the land itself.  For the moment though, they all headed in the same direction.  Janet had a friend in the nearby countryside, almost perfectly between the hollow and the shore of their departure.  It was the shore of their currently intended departure anyway, as Wallace was quick to point out in light of all the difficulties they’d had up to that point.

After leaving their lochtiles behind they took a train and then a sturdy autowagon, Wallace was certain it used to be some sort of tractor, out to the large home of Janet’s friend where she was sure they would be welcome to stay for a night or two.  The house was large and clean, but with foggy windows.  The yard was overgrown with weeds, thorns, and heavy blue flowers.  There was a lone horse grazing with no sign of a fence keeping it in.  They all approached the door and Janet knocked.

“As a reminder, her name is Itsy Baxter-Igraham,” Janet said.  “She’s a little strange, but I won’t tolerate any ridicule… not that I’m worried about that from a strange spice blend like us.”  A woman, who was perhaps only four months past being called a girl instead, answered the door.  Her skin was fair and her short hair very dark.  Her wide cheeks were scored by pimple scars, which were shaped in such a way that they couldn’t be mistaken for an injury with a more exciting source.  She wore a black and white dress with a shawl.  Her large dark eyes were placid in a way that was a little more unsettling than calming.  Her expression suggested she remembered the moment of her birth and also knew the day, time, and manner of her eventual death.  They expected Janet to greet her simply, but instead the primatologist recited something.

“Dr. Wedley stomped through the rain.  Without an umbrella, thanks to his hasty exit, he was forced to hunch over to protect the artifact.  He muttered curses at himself for being such a fool.  How could he think of nothing to do but run?  What would Gabrielle say when he showed up at her doorstep six miles down the road?  He had the feeling it would be nothing good.

The artifact whispered to him.  Perhaps he was imagining it, but he pulled the cloth away from its stone face and examined its eyes anyway.  They glowed ghostly blue.  The eyes spoke to his soul.  The ancient spirit inside grabbed at his core with icy claws.  Suddenly, he couldn’t move.  Standing in the middle of a puddle, his feet would not lift.  The icy sensation rose up his legs along with the water.  Was he sinking?  Was it an illusion of the darkness?  Wedley struggled against the paralysis, but he was no match for the occult force.  He fell.  The puddle flowed into his nose and mouth.  After a while, he couldn’t hear his own thoughts anymore.”

Itsy applauded the performance.  The others had no idea what was transpiring, but they stood there quietly and let it continue.  Whatever it was, they were willing to put up with several minutes of it if it meant warm beds that night.  The girl took her turn and responded to Janet with a few paragraphs of her own.

“Gabrielle was nearly buried alive in books.  The entirety of her own collection was strewn across the table.  Three stacks she’d taken from the library covering archaeology, mythology, and even geology stood around her ankles and behind the chair.  She’d been reading so long that her neck felt like an old ceiling beam.  All of the words were running together like trains passing straight through each other.  She placed her hands over her face and rubbed the confusion away.

If only Andrew had never found that accursed thing in that accursed hole.  She supposed it was actually the fault of the indigenous peoples who had originally entombed it.  They were the ones passing off the responsibility to the poor souls who unearthed it.  If only there had been some kind of badger around, something good at digging that could’ve put it deeper.  An animal would have buried it like waste, not enshrined it to tempt the men of the future.  Gabrielle pushed the books aside, hastily marking all her pages, and went to put on her coat.  Perhaps Dr. Wedley had made more progress.  She grabbed her umbrella and stepped out into the dark rain.”

Itsy held out her arm and welcomed them all inside.  The house was empty except for her.  Janet had explained earlier the unfortunate death of both the girl’s parents during a heat wave three years prior.  Since then she’d remained in her inherited home alone, no siblings and no husband.  Though Itsy’s discomfort around people, especially so many people, was obvious in the way she kept her arms close to her sides, the evidence of her expansive social life was everywhere in the form of envelopes and letters.

She had several boxes filled with letters filed by chapters.  Nearly every room had a writing desk and nearly every desk had three to five unfinished letters spread across it.  Itsy was nice enough to clear her work off of the furniture in the sitting room so they could all relax.  Janet asked permission for the group to spend the night and Itsy kindly granted it.  After Itsy brought out a tray of crackers and fruit for them to share, Janet got around to explaining the girl’s habits.

“Itsy and I have been writing a novel by correspondence for over a year,” she said with a smirk.  Tycho nudged her.  “Oh yes.  She’s been writing a different one with Tycho as well.”  The sasquatch dug a piece of paper out of his pack and handed it to Itsy.  The girl smiled and quickly filed it away.  “In fact, Itsy’s fiction is her primary form of interaction with the world.”

“I’ve created hundreds of stories with people all over the disk,” she said, “without ever leaving the comfort of home.”

“With all this correspondence you must keep up with the news as well,” Wallace hinted.

“Yes,” she answered.

“…With newspapers.  We haven’t seen one since before the hollow.”  Once Itsy realized what he was asking for she quickly retrieved a newspaper, only three days old, from a stack of books and handed it over.  Wallace practically ripped it open and started rebuilding his image of the world.

“You don’t get lonely doing it this way?” Valencia asked Itsy, bringing the conversation back to her books.

“The ultimate form of engagement is soul-to-soul,” the girl explained.  “A body is just interference.  It’s a foggy window obscuring the light of day, the buzzing of bees, the smell of the flowers…  A person’s true values and intentions come out in a plotline reflexively.  Their morality is the physics of the world in which their characters live.  I know many people intimately, even without having ever seen their faces.”

“That does seem exciting,” Valencia admitted.  She opened her mouth to ask another question, but was interrupted by the sound of Wallace wadding up the newspaper.  He threw it at the window and it bounced harmlessly to the ground.  Everyone stared at him and waited for an explanation.  To Janet it was obvious his frustration had been mounting for some time; she was just glad the object that eventually felt his ire was paper and not something more valuable.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the crowded room, not meaning it.  “I’m not used to my schedule being this messy.  Never have I spent so long on something that should’ve been one box on one page of a calendar.  When I finally get out of the ground there’s nothing but bad news waiting.”

“What’s the news?” Rosamin asked.

“The Modest Proposal,” he said.  Goadphil choked on a cracker.  Bill forgot how to blink.  Janet just sighed.  “They’ve passed a variant in Two York.  We haven’t even left the country and we’re already too late.  Their new truth is cemented in the law of the land.”

“I’m sorry, I assumed all of you had heard,” Itsy said.  She calmly retrieved the crumpled newspaper, unfolded it, and placed it under a book to flatten it out.  “Everyone’s been abuzz about it for a while.  Several colonies want the federal government to step in, but Second York is arguing they’re allowed to take any measures necessary in a state of quarantine to protect their citizens.”

“Including the consumption of baby citizens,” Mardin said glumly.  Rosamin stood.  She made an excuse through choked-back tears and stepped outside.  She needed the light of day right now, and the buzzing of the bees, etc.…

“Are we giving up?” Bill asked.

“The worst has happened,” Janet admitted, “but the bad goes on.  Their measures will do nothing to actually slow the palpitations.  An authoritative truth still needs to free the city.  We could give in now, but Two York will succumb completely to fire if we do.”

“I’m sure as death not giving in until we’ve at least made our case in Transylvania,” Wallace said.

“What did you mean when you said ‘their new truth’?” Itsy asked.  Wallace didn’t answer immediately; he was busy rearranging the internal calendar, so Janet stepped in.

“Mr. Dancing Rocks was referring to the cause of our travels.”  Janet went on to describe the disaster at the symposium, the attack on Rosamin, the call for their arrest, and the multiple attempts on their life by the groundhog.  Most of it Goady, Mardin, and Valencia had heard on their way out of the hollow, but the story carried extra weight now that they knew what the people of Two York were snacking on.  “Our own academy, along with parties unknown, has been orchestrating a campaign of misinformation to further their finances and social standing.  The palpitations were probably just the best excuse that came along.”

“How is it that people cannot tell they’re lying?”

“Information density,” Wallace said.  “Their version is in the papers.  It’s coming out of the mouths of doctors and scientists.  It’s being written down and repeated on a daily basis.  Our honest truth is easy to bury.  Its proponents are an alleged thief and one snake oil institute.”

“That was supposed to be the point of visiting Transylvania,” Bill said glumly.  “When a people can make any old machine walk around and tell you about science, you listen.”

“But it cannot last,” Itsy protested.  “Surely the people will realize their error when the disease worsens.”

“What is the proper cure anyway?” Goady asked.

“Abstinence from intimate oral contact,” Janet said, “and a face mask when in close proximity to others.  There are a few other safety options like lower temperatures and better ventilation.  A few months of these safeguards would nearly eliminate the condition.”

“Months of abstinence from kissing?  Good luck enforcing that,” Valencia snorted as she rested her hands on her melly.

“If people want to take the risk that’s their business,” Wallace said, “but it should be an informed risk.”

“But it cannot last,” Itsy repeated.  “It could only last if the fiction was equal.”

“What do you mean by that Miss?”

“In my opinion a novel is best as a conversation; it prevents self-absorption.  The only writers who do not want to alter their works after their completion are those who have decided they are perfect.  It’s like science that way; there is always improvement to be made and sometimes the views of another are the crucial ingredient.  Fiction requires engagement.  When the people of Two York see their streets ablaze, they will learn the fiction was unequal.”

“They’re not required to be that rational,” Janet said.  “People may never admit they’ve been deceived.”

“You also don’t have to admit anything when you’re being burned alive,” Wallace said.  “All you have to do then is scream.”  Silence crept in.  Wallace stopped in front of the window; no one could see his fingers gripping and releasing the fabric inside his pockets.  Tycho signed something to Janet.  The primatologist nodded.  The ape left the room the same way Rosamin had.

“We should go,” Goadphil said.  “We should go,” he said again, more excitedly.  He paced around.  “We should go to Two York City!”

“We’ve already been,” Wallace grumbled.

“I don’t mean you,” Goady explained.  “I mean Mardy, Val, and yours truly.  We should go and help them.”  Mardin nodded.  He seemed strangely serene about the burst of manic inspiration.

“What are you nodding at?” Valencia asked.  Mardin stopped his head.  “Has your simmering madness finally come to a boil?” she asked Goady.  “I’ve no interest in traveling across the country just to explode in an alley somewhere.”

“We’ll stop the exploding!” Goady hollered.  “We’ll wet our fingertips and share glorious saliva with every lit fuse we come across.  It’s destiny.  It’s a destiny that slightly induces nausea, but it’s as potent as any other!”

“How are we supposed to do all that?  They couldn’t.  No offense.”

“I’ll only take a little,” Wallace said, “just enough to hold onto and get bitter about.”

“We’re the ones best equipped for the job,” Goady went on.  “We’ve been living in a place defined by its denial for decades.  Everyone said they would never consume melon because it was a sin, yet we had a solid block of customers even come Sunday.  In fact, Sunday was our best day; folks always wanted to reward themselves for sitting through church.”

“People with two faces spend twice as much money,” Mardin said sagely.

“I see no reason we can’t donate our services to this cause,” Goady said.  “We’ve no place else to go.  We can set up an underground swelling of honesty, a dermatological condition of the city that won’t be immediately recognizable to all these lying doctors.  Masks are far easier to hide than fruit; you can even fold them!”

“It may even prove easier than that,” Janet said.  “Our message isn’t illegal, just unsupported.”

“It’s already sounding like a holiday,” Goady beamed.  “All we need is a base of operations.”

“My home will be empty until our return,” Bill volunteered.  He regretted the contribution a moment later.  Then he realized Valencia would be living there and threw himself right back into support.  “Somebody might as well use it.”

“What fun,” Itsy said, suddenly reminding everyone she was there.  “I already believe you can do it.  You’re very good at talking to people.  I don’t feel lowered by your prose; I don’t get the sense you’re using a podium to separate yourself from me.”

“I’ve never touched a podium in my life!” Goady hollered.

Tycho wandered around outside the house in search of Rosamin as the daylight receded.  He sniffed the air for signs of her.  The ape always liked her scent; her natural essence powered through most perfumes in a matter of hours.  It was a scent of determination, of perspiration flavored by intense thought rather than mere movement.  She smelled like exhilarated exhalations and newly blown glass still glowing with heat.  He found the scent and followed it behind the house.

Rosamin’s feet dangled from a tree branch eleven feet off the ground.  The foliage was so thick that he couldn’t see anything else, so with two mighty arm movements he pulled himself up into the thick tree’s limbs.  The branch that supported Rosamin was too thin for his weight, so he stayed near the trunk and patted a flat hand on it a few times to draw her attention.

“Hello Tycho,” she said without looking over.  A tear fell out of the branches and bounced off a blade of grass below.  Rosamin dug a red handkerchief out and rubbed at her eyes furiously, so much so that the red color seemed to transfer to her cheeks.  The sasquatch knew that the girl didn’t understand his sign language, so he used simpler gestures.  He ran his fingertip from the corner of his own eye down his cheek, pointed to Rosamin, and then mimicked a human’s questioning expression.  “I’m tired of the world being so wrong,” she said in response.  “It’s not supposed to be corruptible like this.  I did everything I was supposed to.”

Tycho held up one finger.  The five fingers on his other hand came along and overwhelmed the lone digit, tapping on it mercilessly until it was forced back to his calloused palm.

“They didn’t do what they were supposed to,” Rosamin guessed.  “For every person like me there are five more looking to send us backward.  Looking to separate, belittle, consume…  Babies Tycho!  My city is eating babies.  They’re cavemen.  They wanted to be that; it’s the only explanation.  How could anyone want that?  Do they not see that it fits all definitions of evil?  They do…  I know they do.  I saw the… knowingness in Simon’s eyes back at the symposium.  He knows.”  Tycho plucked a leaf from the tree and held it out.  “I don’t know Tycho.”  He shook it.  He held it up like the only torch in the world.  “Is it the truth?”

The ape nodded enthusiastically.  He pointed at his own face and then made a swinging motion with his hand.  It took Rosamin a moment, but she successfully guessed he was playing the role of Simon swinging his pendant.  Tycho looked at the leaf lovingly.  He stroked it.  He made a kissy face and little sucking sounds like someone trying to get the last drop of milk out of its bottle.  Rosamin chuckled.  Different as he was from a human, he certainly seemed to have a grasp of Simon’s technique.  Tycho popped the leaf in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed.

“What on Earth does that mean?” Rosamin asked with a scrunched face.  “You think Simon eats the truth?  Janet told me you were a writer; I should’ve figured you’d vex me with poetic devices.  Am I supposed to give you my interpretation?”  The ape shrugged.  “I suppose he does sort of do that.  He chews up the facts…  He makes them into a paste that he can mold into another shape or vanish down his gullet so it’s completely hidden.  He processes it into a truth-like substance.”

Tycho patted his stomach.  Then, confident his point was made, he leapt down to the ground in a move that shook the entire tree.  Rosamin thought about it for a moment more.  Simon was playing games with the truth.  He could hide it, he could erase Rosamin’s name from it, and he could even break it down to its most basic elements and shove it in a bag, but he couldn’t destroy the raw stuff of it the same way caloric could not be created or destroyed.  Maybe they would not succeed in Transylvania.  Maybe they would just send someone else down the path of honesty.  Either way it was worth it.  She didn’t need to be part of history, just on the right side of it.

The microscopist scooted off the branch and dropped down onto Tycho’s shoulders.  The ape walked her back to the house and set her down by the door.  Rosamin made sure she was composed before rejoining the others.  She pushed the thoughts of those poor children to the back of her mind.  If Simon and Dilcourt could pretend the truth didn’t exist, she could keep the thoughts of their works at a distance.  Once inside, it didn’t take her long to realize that their friends from the hollow would be off to Two York to help them sway the minds of the common people.

“That’s an excellent idea,” she told them.  “We can use all the help we can get.”  Hours passed, and when the details of their departure were thoroughly plotted they began to turn in for the night.

Everyone was eager to sleep, except for Bill; there was something he needed to address first.  Between dinner and the planning he’d been sneaking glances at some of Itsy’s open stories littered about the house.  After quietly asking her if it was alright to outright read some of them, she told him it was fine as long as he stayed clear of anything marked with purple ink.  Those stories were the most personal, she argued, and completely irrelevant to anyone but the two authors.

What he read further kindled the ember ignited by meeting Itsy.  Already he was certain there was something crucial to this mutual writing business that his everyday life lacked.  Their adventures hadn’t done much for him; so far it had just been a carousel of discomforts circling between fatigue, fear, confusion, slimy canned food, and general anxiety.  What was it about these stories that had his fingers rubbing circles into each other in search of a pencil?

He decided it was because of the contradiction with his work back in the city.  There had always been something wrong with his column in the paper.  Every day he made his measurements.  He checked the weather veins, he monitored the thermometers, both at ground level and raised like flags, and he studied clouds as well as cloud photographs from the surrounding regions.  He quietly compiled the data into an estimate, wrote it down, and sent it off to be published.

When he’d first started the job it seemed like merely a public service.  He had no way of knowing he would be seen as an emissary of the gods.  When those gods didn’t bless crops with sun or public events with clear skies, he was the nearest object solid enough to catch blame.  His estimations irrigated the seeds of grievance.  If Itsy’s correspondence was a conversation, Bill’s was an argument between strangers.  Those upset couldn’t simply send him a letter; the paper wouldn’t publish their feelings.  They felt forced into seeking him out and threatening him into changing the atmosphere’s mood.

Bill wanted to write something that naturally expected a response, two halves that could play a game forever without fear of denial or blame.  He went to Itsy again in the morning and asked if he could borrow some of her supplies.  She gladly gave him a few sheets of paper, envelopes, ink, and a pen.  She offered him a vial of expensive purple ink. Flustered as he was by her generosity, Bill turned it down.  He wanted to take this conversation more slowly, to build it up to the passion of purple.

Once everything was together they took their leave of Itsy, but not before Janet and the girl exchanged a few more paragraphs.  Afterwards they said their goodbyes to the girl and her mountains of mutual fiction.  They caught a ride with the man who delivered groceries to the isolated house; he took them into town where they could then purchase train tickets.  Wallace set them on a course for the shore while Goady bought tickets that would take him and his friends towards Two York.  Bill slipped Valencia a scrap of paper with his address on it so they could find their temporary home.  He spoke to her quietly while Goadphil and Mardin evenly distributed handshakes with the rest of the group.

“I was hoping to ask you something.”

“You can hope for bigger and better things than that William,” she said with a smile.  Bill cast his eyes down for a moment.  He’d never been so tempted to blurt out admiration of someone’s beauty, not even as a schoolboy.  Her brown cheeks, so full of life and warmth, sped his heart and convinced him he had the palpitations.

“With your permission I would like to write to you while I travel.  I’d like to try writing the way Miss Baxter-Igraham does it.  I want to share a story with you.  I feel like… I feel like I can learn a lot from you.”

“Itsy told me something the other night,” Valencia said.  “She said that, on occasion, she shows up on doorsteps and delivers the next part of the story through speech.  She never steps inside and she never says anything else that’s not in the story.  She just walks away when she’s done because it mimics the giddiness of waiting for a written reply.  I’m a bit older than Itsy and I think I’m past all the waiting for replies.  When we’re writing this story I want you to promise me that you’ll deliver the final act on your own doorstep in your own voice.”

“I promise,” Bill sputtered.  He grabbed her hand and kissed it.

“I also want you to promise that once the story is finished, you won’t walk away.  Promise you’ll have something else to say.”

“I promise,” Bill repeated.  He wanted to embrace her, despite the swell of melon hidden under her clothes that would make it awkward.  Rosamin helped him deal with the temptation by dragging him away so she could say goodbye to Valencia herself.  When they were all on the trains Rosamin noticed the way Bill’s face was practically glued to the window.

“She is rather adorable,” she said.  Bill turned, his eyes wide.  “What?  I don’t need a microscope to see what’s going on.”

“Am I that transparent?” he asked nervously as he straightened his collar.

“Like glass,” Wallace added.

“But there’s a charm to it,” Rosamin was quick to add when Bill looked like his skin was preparing all its moisture for a monsoon-sized session of sweating, “like stained glass.”

“That implies craftsmanship I do not possess,” he admitted weakly.  “I was always too busy looking at the sky to notice women. I saw a very beautiful girl when I was eleven once.  I looked up to avoid staring and saw lovely striations in the cirrus.  When my eyes came back down I was nearly fifty!”

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Janet said.  “If you’d resigned yourself to a trio of children and a lapdog your accomplishments wouldn’t stand out the way they do.  You never would’ve met us.  You never would’ve had the chance to risk your life for your glorious principles.”

“I never would have met Valencia,” he added.  He opened his mouth, but didn’t speak for a moment.  “Is it the age difference?  Has my confidence plummeted into the dark decades-deep chasm between us?”

“Bill, you’re younger at heart than Rosamin,” Janet teased.

“Hey,” Rosamin cut in, “You’re completely correct, but still…  It’s just the weight of all these heroics that’s got my posture looking aged.”  Wallace snorted after the word heroics, but they ignored him.  She turned to Bill.  “What we’re getting around to Bill is that we’ve reached a scientific consensus.  You and Valencia would be lovely together.”

“For now I will keep it to letters… or… chapters I suppose,” he said.  “Once again my eyes are drawn to the distance.  This time the clouds are over Transylvania.”

The post office was about to close for the night.  Much of their business had shifted to telegraphy lately, so ten of the machines were set up all over the place.  Warclaw sat there on the bench, waiting for the tapping to end and for someone to hand him the message.  Someone had been kind enough to get him a rag damp with cold water to put around his eyes; they were still pink and puffy from all the stings.

He was out of the hollow, in some no-name town close enough to the cavern to still see the swell in the Earth that was its roof.  He had asked around, but nobody had seen the four scientists or a sasquatch come through.  The first thing he did was send a telegram back to Two York in the hopes he’d get some kind of promise of payment for following them across the pond.  He was going anyway, but he didn’t have to face what it all meant to him if he had the excuse Dilcourt’s money provided.

Rosamin had to die because that was the only thing he could have to prove he hadn’t failed.  He was hired to stop her, so she would be stopped cold, even if it was two feet from the academy steps on her return trip, even if it was in front of a hundred journalists and a parade in her honor.

Even so, she was still the secondary goal.  Dancing Rocks needed killing more.  All of Warclaw’s sweetness was tied up in his old self.  He hadn’t shared an honest kind word with another soul since he was a soldier on a righteous path.  That path had a burning tree tossed across it, faces behind the flames flickering, war paint melting as they perspired into it.  All Warclaw remembered of the Indians was savagery, and his memory clarified every bit of it as the days passed.  Everything about the old battles was so clear that when he dove into the memories he could see straight down the devils’ throats as they hollered.

Dancing Rocks was the end result of that burning tree.  He was an Indian dressed up like a man, war paint hidden under the shirt, shell money replaced by coins but still called wampum.  In the papers Warclaw often saw the financial abbreviations of the stock market: UCD for the colonies dollar and W for the illegitimate currency of their primary trade partner.  If he ever noticed that the wampum was stronger than the dollar it was enough to send him to the bottom of a bottle.

Dancing Rocks was an Indian with a job, with a contract no doubt.  With a salary.  Warclaw couldn’t stand the smugness of the man, pretending his people hadn’t outright stolen the concept of industry from Europe’s immigrants.  They were running around in nothing but hide and paint, he thought.  Living in burrow mounds nigh indistinguishable from shitholes.  A postal worker handed him his telegram, on a fresh sheet of yellow paper.  Warclaw read it.

PIGEON IF NECESSARY INC.

TELEGRAM

HAVENT HEARD FROM YOU IN LONG WHILE.

ASSIGNMENT IS REVOKED, RETURN TO TWO YORK FOR PARTIAL PAYMENT.

OTHER PARTIES HAVE BEEN CONTRACTED TO FINISH.

WOULD APPRECIATE PROMPT UPDATE AND ANY INFORMATION REGARDING ASSIGNMENT.

USEFUL INFORMATION COULD WARRANT FURTHER PAYMENT.

INVOLVEMENT OF VANIA INEVITABLE IT SEEMS.

Warclaw wadded up the paper and tossed it on the ground.  Someone kicked it away.  If they hadn’t he might’ve lost control, pulled his gun, and shot at it until it was nothing but shreds too small to hold a complete word.  The sweeper got up and stormed out towards the train station.  You can’t revoke an assignment.  No war has ever really ended in treaty; it’s just cowards too tired and scared to go on.  There is no going on, just living.  If you’re not ready to do it, to fight for what’s in front of you, you might as well kneel in a grave.

The ocean was in entirely the wrong direction as far as his instincts were concerned, but he had to follow the quarry.  He knew they would be appreciating the hospitality of the Transylvanian academy; it couldn’t be too difficult to find.  The biggest problem would be crossing their borders, but if these so-called other parties had a way in then he could go ahead and ask them if they’d be so kind as to share their trick.

What if they don’t speak English…  Outside the fences where the peasants are they likely won’t.  Inside?  They have to.  No man could make contraptions like that without knowing the superior language.  Any machine taught any other way to talk would come off dumber than a savage.  I bet they hide all sorts of things behind the dignity of the language.  Whispers of un-American pagan engineering.  Just more Indians pretending their designs are humanity rather than mask.

Rocks-Dance-on-Hot-Earth

When a full week had passed without the groundhog popping his head up anywhere, Rosamin and the others finally found opportunity to relax.  Their train rides were so uneventful that they hardly noticed when the rails and whistles were traded in for waves and foghorns.  Boarding the ship was almost disappointing after riding on the back of a lochtile through the hollow earth.

They passed the time on the water by constructing their presentation to the Vanians.  Rosamin must have practiced her speech a hundred times on an audience with an average composition including a sasquatch, a deckhand who fancied her, and an old woman in a sunhat who couldn’t understand how ‘all the science mumbo’ would help her find a husband.

After crossing the sea, maintaining their pace across Italy was the most difficult thing.  Everywhere they turned there was a new beautiful vista drenched in sun.  The very air seemed to lather them with olive oil, making them want to crawl inside a bottle, pull the cork in, and age silently in some grandmother’s basement.  Wallace even dipped into his personal funds so they could all have one decent meal at one of their hotels.  It was the sort of pasta fluffy enough to resemble bedding and embroidered pillows more than ravioli.  Alas, just as the Mediterranean had given way to the country, the country gave way to the Adriatic.

The rail around Transylvania was tightly controlled and almost wholly automated.  They had to wait for hours for a telegram to be sent from the station; then they had to wait for the reply confirming they were still to be guests of the nation.  They were all anxious waiting for that reply; to be turned down at the doorstep would crush their spirits enough to send them back to Italy for pasta-induced comas.  Questions swirled in their heads:  Have we been forgotten?  Is Two York a lost cause?  Has every mistake we’ve made equaled the death of another innocent child?

Finally their last train arrived as the sun was setting.  Bill rubbed his sore bottom as he rose from the bench and walked to the platform.  Hopefully the passive sitting would end soon.  The others followed behind him.  The train was an imposing machine: black and silver panels, strange white lights, an automated conductor welded to his seat and to his hat…  Even the screws and nails used to hold everything together had four-pointed stars for heads rather than the dull circles used in the colonies.  The steam emerging from the engine was aglow with the distinctive orange-red heat of phlogiston.  Wallace basked in the light and inhaled deeply.  Part of him wanted nothing more than to dive into a Vanian engine, take it apart, and put it back together again.

The doors of the train opened automatically when they approached.  What signal had activated them was a mystery.  It became clear that the small engine and its three cars had been sent exclusively for them; there wasn’t another living soul aboard.  An automaton, like the game-player that had so intrigued Wallace and saved Rosamin’s life, rolled down the aisle to show them to their seats.  This one’s cabinet was much thinner and it wasn’t dressed up in clothes to evoke any kind of persona the way the sideshow machines were.  Once they were seated it handed them a telegram from the Transylvanian academy.

“What does it say?” Janet asked as Rosamin read over it.

“It says that they apologize for the delay,” she read.  “There was confusion over the name of Mr. Dancing Rocks.  We assumed his name was an error from one of the mechanicals and do apologize for any offense this might cause.  We look forward to meeting you shortly.”

“I guess Natural Americans aren’t very common around here,” Bill said.  The doors to their car closed and the engine chugged as it pulled them away from the station.  They were almost immediately engulfed by a dark forest on both sides.  Before their speed started to blur the scenery they noticed what looked like electrical wiring strung up between the tips of the trees.  Occasionally they spotted an eerie glow in the distance.  Wallace was busy storing away the information that the Vanians referred to their machines as mechanicals rather than automatons, when he noticed Bill’s curious look.

“Have I ever told you the story of my name?” he asked, indulging the man.  Bill sprouted a smile.

“I was wondering that myself,” Rosamin said.  “I don’t know much about Natural American culture.  Is it your… spirit name?  Is that what it’s called?”

“Some people call it that,” Wallace confirmed, “but where I grew up it was always called your truthful name.  It’s your figurative reflection and it changes with you.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“The names can’t simply be picked out of a book.  Mind you that naming varies greatly across our cultures, but the general pattern involves a simple name at birth, altering it at adolescence if necessary, and then embellishing slightly after major achievements or events.  An embellished name is usually given by someone of significant civil authority to someone they know personally.”

“So the chances of me getting my own truthful name are not good, I take it?” Bill asked.

“I’m afraid not,” Wallace said with a smirk.  The mechanical rolled back into their car bearing a tray of refreshments: ice water, black and yellow snake oil tonics, and small pastries dusted with dark cinnamon and cocoa powder.  Even if they weren’t hungry they still would’ve taken them, since they thought the machine might report everything it observed to its creators.

“How did the life cycle of your name happen?” Janet asked.

“I was born as Fingerling.”  The others raised their eyebrows.  “I know, it doesn’t seem fitting now, but that’s the point I’m trying to make.  My name was honed to me.  In the east people assume a name is set; it’s like a gravestone that way.  Our names flow like water, allowing for better personal growth.”  He sipped at the black tonic.  It oiled his throat and made speaking even easier, the way good snake oil always did.  “During my time at trade school my parents wanted to change my name to Earth-Dancer and I allowed it.  It was a direct result of my obsession with geology.”

“Was dancing added in so you could impress the ladies?”  Rosamin asked jokingly.  She giggled and nearly choked on the cinnamon from her pastry.  The mechanical, who had lingered, reached out and wiped her mouth with a napkin.  She thanked it.  It didn’t move.  She dismissed it as politely as possible and it rolled away silently.

“One of my professors at the school changed it to Rocks-Dance-on-Hot-Earth, after I had expertly navigated a tense social situation with him that could’ve ended his career.  Thus my name stands.”

“…But we’ve been calling you Wallace this whole time.”

“As you should.  Wallace Dancing Rocks is a simplified version for the colony people.  Most of us who travel have a name like this as well.  As another example, my employer would introduce himself to you as Odie New Whirlwind.  Were he introduced formally back in the tribes he would be called Whirlwind-Dies-and-is-Reborn.”

Kitchoo!  Something ricocheted off the side of their train.  It was so loud that they all sank into their seats to avoid possible debris.  Tycho held his huge furry arms over everyone’s heads as best he could.  The doors at the end of the car flew open again and the mechanical sped towards them.  Its cabinet popped open and a rifle sprang out of a spring-loaded compartment.  The machine snatched the weapon out of the air and aimed it out the window.  The kpof! Of its constant picture-taking sped up.  The sound did not come again.  Only after five full minutes of silence did the mechanical lower the gun.

“Did someone just shoot at us?” Bill asked.

“Maybe it was the groundhog,” Rosamin said.  The mechanical loaded the rifle back into its compartment and handed Rosamin another napkin; she’d covered herself in cinnamon trying to hide from the sound.

“I wonder what kind of life he’s led where he thinks it necessary to follow us across an ocean and two seas,” Janet wondered aloud.

“I doubt it,” Wallace said.  “That man seemed like the planning type to me, not one to fire off a wild round at the side of a train.  He didn’t even hit a window.”  They stayed wary for the rest of their ride, even with the mechanical now refusing to leave their side.  The train took them through two moderately-sized villages, took three unusual turns onto tracks that were partially disguised in the ground, and finally pulled into a small station with only four tracks and blacked-out windows.

On the way in they saw that the station connected to the academy of science.  It had to be the academy; they hadn’t seen a building that ornate in all their lives.  At some point in the past it had been a castle.  Its outer stone walls survived to this day, but they were fortified with metal gates and bars.

Hundreds of grotesques sat on every outcropping and all along the top of its walls.  These were not the passive statues of churches, paws together and tongues lolling out gently like dim dogs; these were carved to be full of life.  They crawled all over each other.  They bit at twigs loaded with berries.  They fought with shields and curved swords.  They rode boars and giant salamanders like horses.  Some even had glowing eyes that shined brightly enough to hide the wire that connected them back to the building below.

Towers both old and new soared at the corners of the facility.  Wallace had expected to see some kind of attached factory where the mechanicals were assembled, but instead the outer wall enclosed a field of tiny workshops and sheds producing a chorus of industrious sounds like a band of steel crickets.  He had hoped for a factory because it would have been easier to sneak a peek at one door as opposed to one hundred.  Of course if they wanted to make it easy they could just allow private corporations to profit from their constructions instead of keeping a tight civil lid on it all the way from planning, to manufacturing, to the check-ins at their eventual home.

The mechanical grabbed a few of their bags and escorted them off the train.  At one of the castle’s entrances, a humble door flanked by two not-so-humble horned and fanged statues, they stopped.  Kpof!  Flash powder smoke rose out of the statues’ mouths.  After a few moments the door opened on its own.

“I’m not sure how I feel about these ghastly doors,” Bill said.  “They make me feel like I have no choice but to enter.”

“At this point we might not,” Wallace said.  He was the first one inside.  It was a lobby of sorts, but oddly quiet for the number of people and machines milling about.  They received plenty of stares.  It gave them the sense that without their mechanical escort they might have been attacked on the spot.  The machine led them through the lobby and into a conference room off one of the initial hallways.  Once they were all inside one part of its metal hand unfolded into a key and locked them in.

“I imagine if he could speak he would’ve said something in the vein of ‘someone will be with you shortly’,” Janet offered.  She took a seat at the table.   Luckily for their nerves, it wasn’t a long wait.  They didn’t even hear the door unlock when a young woman, possibly even younger than Rosamin, entered.  She wore a blue dress with a high neck; a heavy pendant disguising some sort of calculating device rested on her breast.  Her pale skin, dark hair, and cold eyes were all part of the Transylvanian popular image, but when she opened her mouth they heard nothing but English with a familiar colony accent.

“Good evening, I am Diane Lattermoon.  I apologize for your wait; we’ve been very busy lately.”  She examined each of them and they did the same to her.  Janet couldn’t put her finger on it, but there was something familiar about the girl.  Diane grabbed a tiny piece of her pendant and cranked it around twice, without offering an explanation.  “I do hope I am in the right room.  You are the representatives of the Second York Academy yes?”

“We are,” Rosamin said.

“Good.  At least that hasn’t gone awry.”

“Awry?”

“Errors.  Errors abound today.  Too much electricity in the air perhaps.”  She rotated her pendant back to its original orientation, seeming to take pleasure in its final click.  “There are a few less than we thought.  Maybe it is the day that is strange.  We expected your arrival a long time ago.”

“The reason for our delay has much to do with our reason for being here,” Rosamin explained.

“So there’s a reason this time,” Diane mused.  “Normally I would take you to shake hands with some of our more brilliant minds, we’d exchange meaningless gifts, and we would smile at the cameras until we were blinded by the flashes.  The presence of an actual issue may mean I was premature in dreading this meeting.  I apologize if I’m being blunt, but I expected two or three withered men bowed by the weight of their medals.”

“As you said, it is a strange day,” Wallace pointed out.

“Could I have your names please?”

“Rosamin Bluff-Polk.”

“William Nimble.”

“Janet Goodmoss.  This is my assistant Tycho.”

“Wallace Dancing Rocks.”

“Mr. Dancing Rocks,” Diane repeated.  “That is your real name.”  She chuckled, but didn’t seem amused.  “Even when it came back to us as verified I had my doubts.  Noun confusion is a common error in the mechanicals when there’s dust in their works.  Earlier today one of our units scheduling food delivery insisted that the day’s bread would be arriving inside an oven rather than a wagon.  We tried to reason with it, but over and over again ‘the oven will be arriving in three hours, the oven will be arriving in two hours, the oven is here’.”

“As you can see I am not a rock,” Wallace said with a smirk as false as her chuckle.  She cranked her pendant twice and stood silently for a moment.

“Mr. Rocks.  You are an engineer are you not?”

“How did you know that?  You said you expected three wispy medal-stands to be in this room.”

“I did, but when your names were relayed to us from the train station we checked our information banks and I was given a few details.  Assuming the information is current I know all of your careers and the universities you graduated from.”  A pause.  “I wonder if you would be so kind as to offer your services… we have a misbehaving furnace.”

“Don’t you have mechanicals for that sort of thing?” Wallace asked.  The others were a little confused.  They were there seeking help; why would he not immediately agree to tip the scales in their favor?

“For the actual repairs yes,” Diane said, “but diagnosis is another issue.  Give them some arithmetic and they’ll break it down and put it back together in no time, but show them an apple with a bite out of it and instead of suggesting you mash it into sauce they’ll suggest reversing time to restore the fruit’s flesh.  They miss practical solutions.  A human touch would be best and we’ve been told you’re excellent with your hands.”

“Very well,” Wallace rasped, a lump dancing in his throat.  Diane opened the door.  A new mechanical entered; it was burlier than their initial escort, with shoulders like barrels and a chest that looked like the front of the engine they’d arrived on.  It led Wallace out of the room and down the hall.

“Can we continue without your associate?” Diane asked forcefully.  “For time’s sake.  Errors or no, the evening’s schedule is still full.”

“When do you Vanians sleep?” Bill asked, trying not to picture fanged waxy corpses rising from coffins.

“We work in shifts,” she explained.  “We see no reason to waste the night.  Though, strictly speaking, I am not Transylvanian in origin.”

“Pennsylvania?” Janet guessed, based on her accent.

“Correct Ms. Goodmoss.  I was recruited out of my university thanks to my theoretical models of photography-spot correction.  Here I work to design mechanicals that don’t confuse small imperfections in their photography process for actual objects in the world.”

“That’s fascinating,” Bill said.

“Only in its effects.  In practice it’s endless analysis of little black, gray, and white dots.  After a while I start to confuse them for reality myself.”  She chuckled again, a little more earnestly this time.  She cranked her pendant again and her smile moved, by degrees, back to a flat line.  “On to business.  Why have you come to us?”  Rosamin stood and mentally opened to the first page of her presentation.  Tycho unrolled several newspaper clippings they’d gathered before setting off from the coast and presented them to Diane as supporting evidence.

“Our city, and to a lesser degree our colony, is currently plagued by spontaneous human combustion, sometimes called volcanic palpitations.  It has claimed hundreds of lives and shows no signs of slowing.  Our academy was tasked more than a year ago with finding a solution; a mission in which I succeeded.”  Rosamin stopped herself from poking her own chest and kept the gesticulating to a minimum.  “I discovered a unique means of transmission: kissing to be exact.  As a new sort of romantically-transmitted affliction, the solutions were relatively obvious: face masks, abstinence from kissing, and common temperature and stress management.”

“Yet the problem persists?” Diane asked.  “A flaw in your discovery?”

“No, no, never… not what happened,” Rosamin shook her head.  Janet slowly lowered her hand to remind Rosamin to stay calm.  The microscopist took a deep breath.  “The academy wouldn’t even entertain my suggestions.  They had their own theory, one we believe to be motivated by financial gain, which pins the blame not on kissing, but on certain races of people.”

“So prove they are wrong,” Diane said simply.  Her granite expression confirmed she wouldn’t make it easy.  Transylvanian secrecy didn’t exactly go hand in hand with charity.

“We already have,” Rosamin said, trying not to sound like a child insisting a half-swept floor was clean.  “We’ve used all the influence we could muster, but they’re operating a mill of misinformation that’s grinding our logic, mixing it with charismatic slant, and sending it out to the frightened masses.  They have this doctor, well he’s hardly deserving of the title, who’s at the front of the parade letting his smile do all the convincing.”

“He’s a hypnotist,” Bill added.  “It’s his job to make illusions tangible.”

“A hypnotist?” Diane repeated.  She cranked her pendant three times, to the point of grinding.  “What is it that you think we can do for you?  We’re no experts in disease.”

“I beg your pardon,” Rosamin said, “but you are Transylvania.  You’re the world’s greatest scientific authority.  We don’t mean to belittle your work, but as we’ve said this is a game of names.  Yours carries the most weight.”  Janet spun her finger in a circle.  “And so…  We were hoping you’d assist the truth by making some public statements, sending a representative to Two York, doing some research of your own, anything at all…”

“Normally I would politely deny you,” Diane said.  She walked around the table, running her fingers along the wood.  “We do not act in politics, even for good causes.  We cannot afford to split our resources when we are so close to a fully automated society.”

“We didn’t get to the worst part,” Bill blurted nervously.  “Rosamin didn’t mention the Modest Proposal…”  Diane stopped.

“As in infanticidal cannibalism?  The bad taste of the English?”

“Yes Miss Lattermoon.”

“To think dancing rocks was the strangest image in my mind today…  What does that have to do with your combustion and your hypnotist?”

“It’s their treatment of the illness,” Rosamin said.  “They’ve blamed it on lower races, so by consuming the infants they’re reducing those populations and decreasing concentration of the disease.  Preventing its spread to their shinier neighborhoods.  It is this attitude, and the willingness to adopt the Proposal, that has attracted funds from other parts of the world.  Thus the financial motive.”

“Has this happened yet?” Diane asked.

“Children are being butchered as we speak,” Rosamin said.  Bill took a deep breath.

“While there’s no possible way you could know if one is being prepared at this moment, I take your point,” Diane went on.  “The Proposal in the so-called New World.  Goodness.  I confess I’ve not stepped outside this facility in nearly a month.  I haven’t been out of the country in more than a year.  I’d forgotten that fluttering fear at the base of the brain…  I’m sure you colonists know the one…  The fear that there’s barbarism out there and the only thing keeping it from being visited upon you is distance.”

“It’s barbarism we seek to stop,” Janet reminded.

“Did this hypnotist have anything to do with the Proposal?” Diane asked.  She tried to crank her pendant, but it would turn no more.  This unsettled her.  Her fingers began tapping nervously on the table.

“We don’t… know exactly how much say he had…” Rosamin said, confounded.  Of what interest was Nielson? Surely he was the least horrifying and fascinating thing they’d mentioned.  “The academy’s efforts to stop us from reaching you kept us in the dark.  What information we have comes from indirect sources at this point.  Seeing as his picture was still in the newest papers we saw I would say he, at the very least, approves.”  Rosamin pictured Nielson sitting down to feast on all the lives he’d smugly ruined, adorning himself with a comically large bib.  “I know he approves.  I’ve met the man.  Can’t conceive that he’s not helping, because his touch is divine inspiration and everyone wants it whether they say so or not.  He’s a scoundrel.  He takes liberties with women…  He’s…”

“On everyone’s guest list as a man of ill repute,” Diane finished.

“You… you know the man?” Bill asked.

“I wonder if he’ll picture me, pink and innocent, when he sits down at the meal he helped prepare…”

“We don’t understand…”

“Simon Nikolaus Nielson.  That is his name,” Diane said.

“Yes,” Rosamin confirmed.  “How do you know him?”

“He is my father.”  Tycho’s mouth dropped open along with the others.  The ape pulled a chair and sat down, the wood creaking under his weight.  Something snapped in Diane’s pendant; it unwound itself loudly.  When it was done she gave it another hearty crank.  She read the stunned silence.  “Don’t doubt it.  It’s not a truth I dispense freely, so it would be very rude.”

“You can’t be,” Rosamin started.  “He’s hardly older than you.”

“My father took to bed with my mother when he was twelve years old,” Diane said.  “Such were his charms even then.”

“Your mother was a similar age?  A whirlwind courtship perhaps?”  Bill postulated.  “Children can get carried away.”

“My mother was twenty-five,” Diane said flatly.  “There’s no way around the logic; her head was as empty as someone half her age.  I exist because her safeguards were pitifully soft.”  Her mouth twitched and her voice quivered, so she cranked her pendant until they couldn’t hear her breath anymore.

“You deserve accolades for making something out of yourself,” Janet said.  She tried to steer the conversation back to productivity.  She was as surprised as anyone else, but Wallace’s absence worried her.  “Despite a disadvantage you’ve positioned yourself as far from the Modest Proposal as possible.”

“Leaving was easy,” Diane said as she stared into the wall.  “Simon couldn’t be a father at his age.  He was removed from the household before my birth.  He returned to shower both of us with love on his twentieth birthday.  Mother was once again fooled, until she noticed his shower continued out the door, all over the street, and in any other building he entered.  Twice he asked me to come and live with him; the second time he tried to mesmerize me.  I decided instead to live in my books.  A hard cover makes an excellent safeguard.”

“Does he know you’re here?”

“He does not.  Should you encounter him again I ask that you not tell him.  Do this for me and I will help you.”

“You will?!” Rosamin exclaimed giddily.  She stood on her toes, incredible restraint given how she wanted to hop around the room like a rabbit with feet on both ends.

“Stopping Simon’s pendulum is reason enough for me.  This is personal, so I won’t be able to do anything on the behalf of the Transylvanian Academy of Science, but that shouldn’t be an issue.  The operation of the mechanicals in the colonies is under my authority.  I can alter their orders as I see fit as long as it doesn’t reflect poorly on my new country or affect the profit those machines bring in.”

“You can use the machines to spread the truth?  How?” Bill asked.

“The same way I would employees,” Diane explained.  “I will give your information to the operators, the operators will give it to the mechanicals, and the mechanicals will distribute it across your entire country.”

“You envision this being effective?” Janet asked.

“It will be more effective than any communication from a scientific authority,” she assured.  “Eighty-four percent of the mechanicals operating in the colonies are being used as fortune-telling machines.  I know how my former country loves mysticism.  This way we continue to build our reputation without putting the machines in the hands of competitors or leaders who would misuse the technology.”

“I don’t quite see how fortune tellers can help,” Bill squeaked.

“Our machines happen to be very good fortune tellers Mr. Nimble.  They will be fed the information about your combustion.  When people pay their few cents and ask how they can stay out of harm’s way, they will be told.”  Diane threw her finger in the air and tallied invisible numbers.  “I predict Two York to be fully informed within two weeks.  Over there our machines see the future… fear of a diseased destiny will force the public to act counter to your academy’s recommendation.”

“Fear isn’t really the way we wanted to do this,” Rosamin said, slightly crestfallen.  “It’s the same tool your father is using.”

“Tools are not evil, only intentions are,” Diane said.  “I don’t see why you’d want to reduce the effectiveness of the strategy.”

“I suppose I don’t…” Rosamin gave in.  “The truth is the most important thing.  The real truth.”

“It is a dark time when we have to clarify the word truth,” Diane added.

“How quickly can we get this done?” Janet asked, unperturbed by the cynicism of the strategy.

“I have other plans this evening,” Diane said.  “We will offer you accommodations for the few nights it will take to format your information in such a way as it can be easily telegraphed.  Rosamin, you can assist in the process.  When we’re done the information will beat you to the colonies by a wide margin.”

“I’m happy to help,” Rosamin said.  She slumped into a chair.  She felt like a hot air balloon that hadn’t touched the ground in years finally being given a break from all the hot air.  There would finally be time to unwind, to actually taste the food she ate.  Diane opened the doors.  Yet another mechanical entered.  She opened a panel on its back and made a few adjustments.  Kpof! 

“This will show you to your rooms,” Diane said.  “Rosamin, a mechanical will likely be by for you around ten in the morning.  If you’ll excuse me I’m going to go check on Mr. Rocks before my workday begins in earnest.”

Wallace followed the burly mechanical through several hallways.  They passed nearly twenty doors, but every single one of them was closed and locked, not a single opportunity for peeking.  When they came to a set of stairs he was curious to see how the wheeled automaton was going to handle the issue.  It didn’t.  It merely gestured for Wallace to descend and leave it behind.  Another mechanical, an identical model, met him at the bottom to continue with him.  As with the automatic train doors, the method by which things were communicated between these machines eluded him.  He didn’t have time to form a theory more complex than unheard sounds before they arrived at the first open door.

The room was dark, with only a dull, crackling, orange glow emanating from the back behind a stack of very large crates.  Wallace moved forward slowly, hearing the tick tick tick of the spokes in the mechanical’s wheels as it inched along behind him.  There was a furnace.  He squatted down and examined it: old, corroded, and inconsequential.  Its black chimney led up into the ceiling.  The burned remains of its fuel looked like nothing but garbage, things burned simply to get rid of them.  He grabbed a metal poker lying abandoned on the floor and used it to move the furnace door back and forth.  The hinge was busted.  The issue didn’t seem urgent.

Something heavy struck the engineer on the back of the head.  He fell unconscious instantly and leaned forward towards the fire.  The mechanical’s hand grabbed the back of his shirt, barely preventing his hair from catching fire.  It picked the man up and held him loosely under the arms, the way one might a bored cat.  It waited for further orders.

Ack!  Uh-uh-ack!  Wallace sputtered and spat as he awoke.  How much time had passed he didn’t know, but the knot on the back of his skull still throbbed like there was a hot hard-boiled egg sewn under his scalp.  He spat out the little pieces of sawdust in his throat that had forced him awake.  He was face down on a cheap wooden table, his body tied to it so tightly that he couldn’t lift his cheek from its surface.  A pile of dried drool had formed around his squished lips.  His fingers curled and uncurled uselessly like the limbs of a dying spider.  There was an unusual amount of sweat between his toes…  His shoes and socks had been removed.

“You’re awake,” Diane said, appearing in front of him in the flickering orange light.  He realized they were still in the furnace room.  Kpof!  There was a mechanical somewhere to the side of the table.  “I thought I was going to have to shock you.”

“Most people would try a glass of cool water,” Wallace croaked.  Diane leaned forward and wiped the sawdust away from his mouth so he could stop coughing.  Then she wiped her hand on the back of his shirt.  “What’s the problem?  My repairs weren’t quick enough for your liking?”  Diane said nothing.  “I admit I didn’t expect to even find a furnace.  I also didn’t know a mechanical could strike so quickly.”

“The furnace was a convenient excuse,” Diane said.  “I don’t like lying…  If you suspected something why did you go willingly?”

“I didn’t want to upset my companions,” he said truthfully.

“Are they actually your friends?” she asked.

“I feel a certain amount of responsibility for them.  Janet can take care of herself, but the other two aren’t well-versed in the cruelty of the world.  They think life is all homework and pats on the back.”

“Do they know your true purpose here?”

“What do you think my true purpose is?” he asked, trying to force his pupils far enough to the side to look her in the eye.  “My purpose is the same as theirs.”

“So they’re all spies then?  Even the monkey?  That’s a terribly good disguise.”  She cranked her pendant; it seemed to dial back her sarcasm.  “What are you here to steal?”

“I’m not trying to steal anything.  I’m not a spy,” he insisted.  Diane snapped her fingers.  The mechanical grabbed the sides of the table and pulled it backward slowly, the legs groaning against the floor.  Wallace’s toes became uncomfortably warm.  Though he couldn’t look back to see he knew he felt the fire of the open furnace.  The mechanical stopped.  “What are you doing?”

“Every time you lie to me you will move three inches closer to the fire,” Diane said.  “You’ve got two lies left before blisters.  Three or four and you may never walk again.”  Wallace tried to curl his toes out of the way, but it didn’t help.

“I’m not lying to you!” he stressed.  Diane snapped her fingers again and held out her hand.  The mechanical handed her a clipboard.  She flipped through the documents on it for a moment.

“We have a report that came with your silly name,” she started, “that told me everything I need to know.  We had a mechanical last year working as a game player at the World’s Fair in Two York.  It informed us that it received an unauthorized visit between performances.  We do tell those people not to hire adolescents for security, but every ringmaster thinks he knows best.”

“What’s your point?”

“It identified its visitor as a Natural American.  It said he asked a lot of questions.  You were the visitor were you not?”  Wallace’s mind raced; he couldn’t tell which answer would save his feet or if either of them even could.  He went with the truth.

“Yes.”

“You’re in the employ of a company that fancies itself a competitor to our own outfit Forge and Learn.  No lies now.”

“Yes!”

“You deliberately approached the mechanical when it was vulnerable in order to steal its secrets.”

“No.”  Diane held up her fingers.  She pressed them together in preparation for a snap.  “Not exactly!”  She held.  “I was sent to examine it sure, but nothing more.  I was the equivalent of someone leaning too far over the velvet rope.  I was looking for clues as to how you did it all but I didn’t do anything illegal.  I didn’t even lay a hand on it.”

“Then explain how it was found smashed to pieces, mixed in with the garbage of a, and I’m quoting the local that discovered it, ‘hole-in-the-harbor with the best damn crab cakes in either York’.”  Wallace stopped wriggling his toes.

“It’s dead?”

“They don’t die Mr. Rocks.  It was destroyed… by you.”  Wallace felt something strange, like finding out his childhood home had caught fire.  He remembered the candor of the machine he spoke with fondly, not at all as he had expected.  Instead of being like reading complicated instructions from a manual, it had been like sharing a light lunch with an acquaintance.

“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” he said.  “I didn’t know it had been destroyed.  I’ll…  I’ll have to tell Rosamin.”

“So she is in league with you?”

“It’s not like that!” Wallace yelled, the deep sound of his voice made less threatening by the way his lips were squished against the table.  “That machine of yours certainly did a good job faking a mind of its own.  After I asked my questions it warned me about the palpitations before they’d become a disaster.  It… it even warned me about the Modest Proposal.”  Diane’s eyes widened.  She cranked her pendant until her expression compacted back to boredom.

“What exactly did it say?”

“I don’t remember exactly because I wasn’t taking notes the way a spy would,” the engineer said.  “I think it said something about ‘tiny graves’.  It gave me these warnings unprompted.  Maybe it saw that I would one day come here and plead with its builders.”

“Did it do anything else?”

“Not that I saw, but a year later Rosamin was saved from an assault by it.  It’s what set all this in motion.  The last we heard it was missing and the blame had been placed squarely at our… feet.”  Wallace tried not to think about feet.  That became much harder when Diane suddenly grabbed the front of the table with both hands, Wallace assumed she barely touched anything with her own hands, and pushed it back towards the furnace.  He felt the hairs on his toes burn away and the follicles get scorched, like a dozen fleas had dropped their cigarettes on him.

“That’s the excuse you came up with?  One of our machines was incidentally destroyed just as a pretense to get you out of the way?  Even if it were true it would be infuriating.”  Being delicate, some would call it shifty, wasn’t getting him anywhere, so Wallace went on the offensive.  All he had tied down like that was words.

“Your father has much better bedside manner.”  She stopped pushing and took her hands back.

“What do you…”

“Nielson.  The mesmerist.  He’s your father.”

“You weren’t there when I told your friends.  How did you hear?” she demanded.

“Oh so you told them.”  He laughed a little.  He tried to do it confidently; confidence doesn’t burn.  “My company knows everything it can about Transylvanian industry; it’s just good business.  We too have records… including the histories of every American graduate poached to work with mechanicals.  You even got an offer from us, but I suppose you never even looked at it.  You see the word Transylvania on an envelope and that’s that.”  Diane pulled the table back away from the furnace.  Wallace breathed a sigh of relief, but kept it quiet.

“What do you think of my father?” she asked.

“I think he’s a seller of sweet poisons,” Wallace said in as poetic a tone he’d ever mustered.  “I think you’re the one talking with us because of him.”

“Your meaning?”

“What are the odds you would happen to be greeting us when we’ve had conflict with Nielson so recently?  You’ve been keeping an eye on him.  You know what he’s been doing and you inserted yourself into this situation to probe for any way to act against him.  I’m not judging by the way; we’ll take what we can get.”

“If you want to talk about coincidences and odds, what’s the likelihood of you signing up for this benevolent mission and also, oh so conveniently, getting an inside look at the only mass production mechanical facility in the world?”

“Slim,” Wallace admitted.  “I swear to you it’s just like before.  Sure, my people offered some financial help getting me here, but I’m just looking.  I’m not going to burgle anything.  I’ll take away only what you show me.  Believe it or not, I am actually invested in wiping that smug breast-nipping grin off Simon’s face.”

Diane questioned him a while longer, but it was easy to see the truce forming.  The leaders of the Transylvanian Academy of Science didn’t need to know Diane was working her own agenda into their machines across the pond, and they also didn’t need to know there was a foreign engineer leaning in to their conversations for a few days.  She had the mechanical untie him.  They didn’t quite shake hands, but there was a polite nod in the darkness, the subtext of which included Wallace not telling the others about the uncomfortably warm interview.

“To think I was sure getting shot at would be the greatest danger of the day,” he commented as he pulled himself off the table and wiped the sawdust from his clothes.  He bent down in front of the furnace, not holding its improvised use as a torture device against it.

“What are you doing?” Diane asked.

“Might as well get this done.  Do you have a screwdriver?”  The mechanical popped open a roughly mailbox-shaped container around its waist and pulled one out.  Wallace took the tool and went to work on the furnace’s hinge.  The black grease and rust flakes felt like warm lotion to him.  Diane stood there awkwardly.  Off the table it was easy enough to see she’d never tortured anyone before.  He thought about telling her she did a fine job, but then he realized there was no right way to say such a thing.  Try as she might, the girl could not compete with some of the tactics he’d faced in the Natural War Party, the military arm of the N.T.A.  A few barbecued toes were nothing compared to the partial skinnings and mud drownings some of his compatriots had suffered.  She changed the subject while he worked.

“You were shot at today?”

“On the train on the way here.  I doubt there was much to it,” he said.  “A single shot ricocheted off the side.  It wasn’t even particularly close to us.  A drunk perhaps.  I need a new screw.”  The mechanical selflessly took one of its digits, a screwdriver itself, and loosened one of its more superfluous screws.  Wallace took it and thanked the machine for its sacrifice.

“Something should have told me,” Diane noted.  She cranked her pendant and made a note on the clipboard.  “Regardless, I have a strong suspicion as to the culprit.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.  The Seal of the Divine Image loves pecking at our machinery whenever they get the chance.”

“I’ve heard of them.  They feel as if you pushed them out right?  Phobic of progress or some such nonsense.”

“They believe the mechanicals are an affront to god because they mimic man, something only god is supposed to create.”

“You don’t strike me as a Sunday Suzy.”

“You’re quite right,” she said.  “Only the Seal wants a good deal more than confession from us.  They’ll be making their boldest move yet in six days’ time.”  Wallace finished with the door and rose to his feet.  He rocked it back and forth a few times without a single squeak.  Then he closed the door loudly, not quite a slam, indicating there would never again be a need to open it and feed it pairs of feet.

“How do you know that?”

“Don’t worry.  Our work with you shouldn’t take more than two days.  You’ll be long gone before their torches are on the horizon.  We’ve predicted it the same way we predict everything else.  We have many different mechanicals of slightly varying construction analyze photographs of key people, places, and objects and cross-examine their conclusions until a coherent scenario is formed.  The process is rarely wrong.”

“What can make it go wrong?” Wallace asked as she held out her arm and ushered them out of the dark storage room and back into the stone hallways of the academy proper.  His eyes wanted to wander, but he thought it could wait until Diane wasn’t breathing down his neck and cranking her pendant in his ear.  They moved up a few floors, towards the rooms Rosamin and the others were lodged in.

“An unexpected variable of significant influence,” she said.  “It would have to be something thrust into the situation and surrounded by information we neglected to feed to the machines in any capacity.  As I said though, we are quite thorough.”

“How are you going to deal with their attack?” he asked quickly.  He knew the second he was back with the others they would try to blunt his harsher questions and Bill would whimper every time bloodshed was hinted, so he tried to draw out information while he had the chance.

“It’s not as simple as all that.  It won’t just be torches.  The Seal wants to send a message that our machines are dangerous; they’ve decided mechanicals should be the source of our downfall.”

“How do they plan on engineering that?  You don’t make military machines… although the whack on the head I just received wasn’t the most peaceable gesture.”

“My apologies,” Diane said.  Wallace saw her touch a tiny switch on the pendant that actually allowed it to unwind for once.  “The Seal recently stole five mechanicals from us while they were being shipped between the academy and a nearby quarry.”

“Quarry?”

“Yes.  The units were diggers and load-lifters, the biggest that we manufacture.  They’re nearly eleven feet tall and capable of lifting half a ton.  We believe the Seal has recruited a few engineers of their own to modify the mechanicals so they can be set on us like attack dogs and thus prove the dangers of our efforts.”

“That’s absurd.”

“It is, but as humans we trade in absurdities.  The facts don’t matter as much as the headline over a picture of a mechanical shooting or strangling a man.  It’s not unlike your current predicament.”

“No, I suppose it isn’t,” Wallace admitted.

“As to your question,” Diane went on, “we are having a skilled company of military men arrive two days prior to the attack.  With sufficient time to prepare they will be able to blast holes in the poor subverted machines before they can get anywhere close and make a mess of things.”  They arrived at the doors.  Wallace could hear Rosamin blathering something at Janet from behind one of them.

“I wish you the best of luck.  One more quick question,” he said as he knocked on the door to Bill’s room.  “The destroyed mechanical…  It was a game-player, yet it gave me a fortune.  Why?”

“Actually Mr. Rocks there is very little difference between the game-players and the fortune tellers.  It’s about watching pieces move and navigating conflicts with minimal loss of power.  One game is just significantly bigger than all the others.”

Wrong Side of the Law

Donald Cross fed his horse an apple that was a little too old and sour for the horse to actually enjoy.  The animal tried to give up after each bite but Donald kept pressing the fruit up into its teeth until it was gone.  Normally he paid closer attention to his mount, but something across the street distracted him.

Donald was a police officer, one of the few left in Two York City still allowed to ride a horse in streets more dominated by autowagons every day.  He was only supposed to monitor the streets and direct traffic, but an urge to bust down doors grew inside him as he watched the front door of the building across the street.  He brought out a stiff brush and started clearing stray hairs from the chestnut horse’s haunches as a pretense to stay where he was.

There were an awful lot of people coming and going out of that door, and they all underwent one notable change.  When they came out the lower halves of their faces were covered by cloth masks: sometimes plain and sometimes with splashes of color or Chinese characters on them.  Donald was the sort who wondered why they weren’t in English rather than wondering what they meant.  He also considered himself educated, enough to know that Chinese medicine was superstitious nonsense and that the local Chinese were convinced they had their own solution to the palpitations.

Donald thought something should be done about a nest of liars on his patrol route.  Every piece of filth wearing a mask was one not selling their spawn to protect the city.  That house was the reason the Proposal hadn’t been able to accomplish much yet.  It was the reason the combustions were still rising.  Not three days ago he’d seen a perfectly respectable looking man on the street drop to his knees and pop.  A stream of hissing hot blood had struck a woman passing by and scared her nearly to death, not to mention the burns on her neck and chest where the fluid struck her.

The horse whinnied; he was brushing too hard.  Donald patted the animal on the side and made sure it was properly tied up.  He pulled his belt up and made his way across the street, stopping only for a clanging fire wagon to speed by him.  The people exiting the house scattered when they saw him, which only made him angrier.  He was there to help; they were supposed to trust him.  Even if this was beyond the scope of his duty, he was there to help everyone.  The door closed just as he reached the top step.

Whump whump whump, he banged on the door.  Whispering.  Whump whump.  Cocky whispering.  The door finally creaked open.  Donald’s anger clogged up inside him; he wasn’t expecting some black woman who looked days away from giving birth.  Behind her he spotted a white man with a turtle-like demeanor moving a box behind a couch.

“What are those?” he asked with the most authoritative finger pointing he could muster.  He kept the finger trained on the box as he pushed his way inside.  Bits of horse excrement from his shoes landed on Bill’s carpet.  Valencia maneuvered back in front of him with her hands on her hips.

“Take off your damn shoes!” she hollered.  Donald wasn’t ready to back down yet, so he tried to shove her aside.  His hand caught her stomach; its firmness shocked him.  He would have to apply a lot more force if he wanted to move her.

“What have you got in that box?” he continued to interrogate as he ripped off his shoes and tossed them aside.  His socks were a lovely olive green.  The spectacled man was about to speak up when a third man entered.

“Where’s your warrant?” the new one shouted.  “We didn’t invite you in here.  We’re not having tea and cakes!  What do you want?”  Goadphil’s outrage threw Donald off yet again.  Where were all the vulnerable Chinese he had reasonably expected?  He only saw one sitting in the other room with another mystery box.  He couldn’t know that young man, the son of the oil vendor who liked to set up shop outside the academy, was the one who’d started the mask service.

The boy had kept the mask Rosamin left on the stand before she stormed off to the fair.  He knew she was a scientist after all.  He knew she was passionate.  After what she’d said about the symposium he’d asked some of the other scientists about her as they left.   He learned about her theory; the boy didn’t know much about science, but he knew what a lot of fancy suits shaking hands meant.  He knew the Proposal had to be wrong.

Officer Cross needed fodder for his argument, so to get on the offensive he moved past Mardin and looked inside the crate where he saw more than a hundred folded cloth masks.  He snatched a handful of them and shook them around in the air.

“You’ve got people thinking these will stop the palpitations don’t you?  You’re tricking them into getting blown up!  That’s illegal!” he asserted, even though he couldn’t quite think of any statute that had made such an act so.  “You’re to cease and desist.  Immediately.”  He bent down to pick up the crate, with the intention of confiscating it.  Goadphil lunged forward and threw his body across it, wrapping his fingers around the side.

“Name the law we broke,” he challenged.  “Go ahead.  Do it.”

“You’re lying to the public.  You’re causing panic,” Donald insisted even as he relinquished his grip.

“In what way are we lying?” Mardin asked politely.  Donald’s plan was to become more convincing by increasing his volume yet again, but Valencia appeared beside him, the bulge under her dress dominating his peripheral vision and making him lose focus.

“Having bad blood makes you vulnerable to palpitations,” he said matter-of-factly.  “Wearing a mask doesn’t make a person any less Chinese or Irish.  They’ll still get it… and then they’ll pass it to everyone else!”

“Blood has nothing to do with it,” Valencia said.  “Anybody can get it and you get it from kissing.”

“That’s horse manure!” Donald yelled.  “Somebody just made that up because they’re mad about the Modest Proposal.  If you imbeciles believe that it’s only because you want to!”

“What exactly is your proof?” Valencia demanded.  Goadphil seconded the question without standing or relinquishing his hold on the crate.

“The proof… the proof is everywhere!” the officer insisted.  “Just look around.  The Second York Academy of Science told us.  That Dr. Simon did all that research.  It was in all the papers!  You had to see it!  We have the Proposal now, which means everyone at the governor’s office saw the proof!”

“That doesn’t sound like proof to me,” Val said.  “You’re saying you heard about it from a bunch of politicians, reporters, and a showman who makes people strut around on stage like chickens.  They don’t sound like scientists to me.”

“We have a law now!”

“So what?  Lawmakers don’t make the world!  We happen to know the people who did the real research.  We know the people who thought there were things more important than notoriety.  They’re after the truth and they say masks, along with a hundred other little things that are irritating and complicated but nowhere near as wrongheaded as eating babies, are the answer!  You should be less trusting of the people who keep telling you there’s an easy no-effort solution to all your problems!”

Donald couldn’t stop his face from turning red; he never thought he’d have to defend reading the news.  It was the news; it just was true.  Why couldn’t these people see that?  In his efforts to come up with a retort he didn’t notice Mardin sneak towards the fireplace.  Donald didn’t have the strength to remove Goady without violently kicking him in the side a few times, so he instead stormed past the man into the next room where he grabbed the other box of masks away from the vendor’s son.  He wasn’t leaving empty-handed.  He could take the box back to the stationhouse, show it to the others to rile them up, and then bring them all back down to end the charade.

He was halfway to the door when he heard shouting.  He could barely see over the box, so it was difficult to tell where it came from.  He spun around only to have the crate knocked from his hands by flailing arms.  The masks spilled all over the floor.  Mardin spun on the carpet, arms flailing, with his shirt on fire.  He lunged at Donald, grabbing him by the biceps and screaming in his face.  The small flame was nearly suffocated between them.

“I’m on fire!” the small round man cried, his face contorting and puffing like a baking pastry.  He gurgled and swung his head back and forth.  “I’m going to blow!  Make it stop!  Oh lord in heaven make it stop!”

“Get off!” the horrified Donald wailed.  He should’ve known better than to walk right into a den of short-fused dynamite.  The terrified officer thrust his fingers in his ears to protect them from the sound of the inevitable explosion, so forcefully that he felt a sharp pain on both sides of his skull.  He left a flaming Mardin on the floor, turned, and ran out the door.  He slammed it behind him.

“Was that really necessary?” Val asked.  Mardin rolled onto his back, having smothered the tiny flame with the carpet.  He tossed a spent match from the fireplace aside and grinned.

“Brilliance is always necessary,” Goadphil praised.  He helped Mardin up off the floor and brushed the ashes from his shirt.  “And it always burns a little.”  Val rolled her eyes and tried to lean over to pick up the masks strewn all over the floor.

“Let me help you,” the vendor’s son said as he finally got over the shock of the officer’s intrusion.

“Thank you,” she said as they worked to undo the last five minutes.  “Humorous as that was, he left here thinking he was still right about the palpitations.  I doubt we put much of a dent in his delusion.  Probably just reinforced it.”

“He did leave something behind,” Goadphil said.

“What?”  Goady held up a fine pair of policeman’s boots.

Continued in Part Seven

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One thought on “The Caloric Kiss: A Pseudoscience Tryst (Part Six)

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