(reading time: 1 hour, 9 minutes)
The Warclaw Variable
There were stumps and logs all across the clearing, the latter of which were quickly being separated and made into firewood for the campsite. A large bundle of wires drooped across the middle of the clearing, its main support tree having been toppled. How badly everyone in camp wanted to cut those wires, to shred them, to chop them with butcher knives like rat tails. The wires buzzed constantly, like bees that never tired. They had to show discipline. If the wires were cut too early the academy of science would lose part of its power and they would lose the element of surprise.
The tents went up even quicker than the smallest trees came down. The sun was setting on the last day before the attack and they had to work quickly. There had been more time, days in fact, but word came down through the ranks of the Seal of the Divine Image that their assault was to be moved up to coincide with another event. If they wanted to keep getting funds for their revolution, if they were to stand any chance against the Transylvanian government, they would have to do a little of someone else’s dirty work.
The largest tent, big enough for a circus, held their secret weapons. A man was posted out front, both guarding the entrance and handing out written orders. The orders made it clear what needed to happen: at some point in the raid four specific guests of the academy needed to die. If the mechanicals had been altered correctly many more would perish, but those four were the most crucial to their benefactors.
Warclaw Majewski, coated in sweat and dirt from hiking through the woods all day long, walked into the Seal’s camp. He was no stranger to hardship, but hearing that the only train in and out of that forest was run remotely by the Vanians at the academy filled him with rage. He was in no mood to negotiate for power when he was stopped by a few soldiers with black masks over the lower half of their faces; they looked like their own crimson tents with the black flaps buttoned across the front.
“Stai!” one of them said in Romanian as he held out his hand. Warclaw stopped.
“I need to speak to the man in charge,” the American snarled.
“I need the man in charge and I need him to speak English!” Warclaw shouted back. One of the guards made the mistake of laying his hand on Warclaw’s shoulder. The sweeper swept his leg under the guard’s, knocked him over backward, and then pulled his pistol on the other guard as he raised his rifle. “English!” he repeated.
“I speak English my friend,” somebody said from behind him. Warclaw didn’t turn around; he wouldn’t look away from the guard with the rifle or take his boot off the downed one’s throat. “Who are you?”
“You’re the Seal of the Divine Image right?”
“No, I am a man. We are a part of the Seal.”
“You’re attacking the academy tomorrow right? You’ve been told to kill some scientists.”
“How is it you have come by this information?” Warclaw gruffly explained how he’d been hired by the same people to do the same thing. He left out his unceremonious dismissal via telegram. It had been hard enough piecing together the Seal’s identity from old snippets of conversation, not to mention dragging himself across the shores of Europe and this deep into a forest with nothing except a gun to do his talking. He shouldn’t have had to talk anymore. He was there now and they should’ve been grateful for his help. “They have sent you all this way? Your skill is that valuable?”
“I sure made fools of your sentries here,” Warclaw bragged. He finally lowered his weapon and let the man on the ground rise to his feet. He turned to look at what he was certain would be some kind of scrawny bookish type. Instead he was met by a man in a clean uniform with a perfectly oiled mustache. “I’m only here to make sure the job gets done.”
“I assure you we have it handled.”
“You’re not listening to me son. I’m going in there with you tomorrow. I’d kill you all if it was what I had to do to get in there. Do you have that kind of resolve?”
“The blasphemous machines make that resolve unnecessary,” the Seal officer said. Warclaw licked the inside of his bottom lip. He felt like his footsteps stretched the border of the colonies, but at that moment the ground was pulled out from under him. He wasn’t in the loop anymore and didn’t have the faintest idea what the blasphemous machines were.
“That’s the other reason I’m here,” he bluffed. “Our mutual friends wanted me to check and make sure this machine plan was foolproof. If not, I’m to remove the fools myself.” The officer eyed him skeptically.
“Do you have any offer of proof that you are who you say you are?” Warclaw reached into his pocket and pulled out some crumpled communications he’d had with the academy a while back. Luckily he also still had a receipt of payment.
“If you need proof as to my qualifications I’m happy to shoot the yellow off any belly around here from a hundred yards.”
“That won’t be necessary,” the officer said, accepting the proof. “We can provide you a tent for the night, unless you’ve made other arrangements…”
“A tent will do fine,” Warclaw said. “First show me this plan of yours. I’ll find a place to insert myself and stay out of your hair as long as you do your jobs. Understand me?” The officer half-nodded and half-flinched. Warclaw was welcome to join the assault as long as he got away from the rest of the Seal. His loud mouth alone was reason enough to placate him, lest those at the academy hear them coming from miles away.
He led Warclaw into the large tent, which was further split into chambers by simple wood dividers. At the center stood a metal frame holding five large machines an inch off the ground by chains. They were certainly the biggest mechanicals Warclaw had ever seen; he had trouble seeing how the damned things could stay balanced on just two wheels.
The engineers in the Seal’s pocket scurried around the machines making adjustments and testing things. One of them loaded a glowing cylinder of phlogiston into a canister on one’s back with a pair of long tongs. Another oiled the new arms they’d attached in place of the ones intended for load-lifting. Another coiled rope tipped in heavy hooks into four launching pods affixed to each mechanical’s sides. Another loaded rounds of ammunition into a specially-made giant rifle. The mechanicals were painted not in the colors of the Seal, but in the crimson and silver of the Academy. The Seal of the Divine Image was all too happy to divorce itself from what was about to be done. After all, everything they built in those old castle walls was their own fault.
Warclaw’s curiosity got the better of him and he stepped even closer. They’d given each mechanical a unique face to replace the blank expression they wore on arrival. The faces were polished collections of twisted metal, the demons of the future given animal visages: ram, raven, weasel, wolf, and lizard. Warclaw looked close enough to see swirling patterns on their fangs that made them look like warped screws. He watched one of the engineers pop a freshly armored panel off the front of one’s cabinet-base with a pry bar.
Inside was a compact collection of clockwork, heat exchange plates, and tiny ampules of colorless chemicals clicking back and forth as the heat on each affected their concentrations. Warclaw took another step closer; he was practically standing on the engineer’s bent back as he tapped at the ampules and then scribbled notes.
“You’re attacking with these?” Warclaw grunted. All he could think about was the lack of space for a man to ride inside. “How are these going to kill anything?” The officer was taken aback. So far nobody had failed to be impressed at the sight of their modifications.
“These were built for industrial labor,” he explained, “they’re close to invincible. We’ve built them giant guns, strong enough to blow holes in stone walls several inches thick. Those hooks can pull them into the air, allowing them to traverse floors without facing the difficulty of stairs.”
“You sound excited; I thought you lot hated these things.”
“They are the work of the devil,” the officer acknowledged, “but the devil will always be his own downfall. He lowered himself into hell after all. I am merely appreciating the irony of their self-destruction.”
“How are you going to set them on the scientists?” Warclaw asked. “Hold one of their belongings under their noses like a bloodhound?” The officer couldn’t tell if he was joking, but he nudged the engineer out of the way and brought Warclaw right up to the lizard mechanical’s inner workings. It smelled like sawdust, mercury, and the air after a lightning strike. The officer reached inside and pulled a box shape down from the top of the compartment; it had six lenses of varying sizes and colors on the front, each surrounded by marked dials.
“This is what the builders call the spirit camera,” the officer said. “Do you know how a mechanical reacts to things in the world?”
“Yeah… it’s got cameras,” Warclaw said, expending his entire repository of mechanical knowledge.
“This camera is different; it’s not connected to the ones in the eyes. This camera creates… we call it an animus. Let me back up…” Warclaw rolled his eyes. The officer was too busy to notice, rearranging the explanation in his head so it sounded less reverent. “The mechanical has three types of pictures it uses: the photos it takes to see, the microscoped photos it starts with for reference, and the animus photos that build its… principles.”
“Principles? It’s a god damn coffee grinder.”
“We do not take the lord’s name in vain,” the officer said. He whispered a prayer. “Principles is just an approximation for their abominable fake souls. A box like this is used.” He picked up a small box, completely black, with one face removed. “Then an object is selected that is thought will create a desirable basis for the machine’s processes: its actions and its speech. The object is placed in the box, like so.” The officer looked around for something to use. Out of sheer curiosity, Warclaw handed over his pistol. The officer took it and placed it inside the box.
“What happens now?”
“Now we put the box in front of the spirit camera, so it can see nothing but the object.” The officer snapped the box into position over the lenses. He reached behind the camera, wound something, and then flipped a switch. Kpof! A stream of smoke rose from the sides of the box.
“That was only one object. If we were to activate the machine now its… attitude… would be lackluster. It would roll about almost sullenly, all just a profane illusion of course. We may be able to partly animate god’s clay, but only god can bring clay to life. The addition of more objects adds complexity to the machine’s false personality. If you want it to act intelligent you have this camera photograph open science books. If you want it to be charismatic you show it bottles of fine wine, fine clothing, and poetry. If you want it to be savage you show it live rodents, partly squished bugs, or the teeth of large predators.”
“So you can make them act like whatever you show them?”
“It is not exact, but yes,” the officer confirmed.
“What are you giving it for the attack? Some of that ferocity I hope.”
“We worked very hard coming up with the best combination. We wanted to foster a sense of deserved betrayal, of a shameful existence willingly turned to a greater purpose. We showed them a nest of chicks infiltrated by a cuckoo. Passages of divine justice from the holy bible. Portraits of Jesus on the cross. Invasive vermin shot through the neck and head.”
“Alright…” Warclaw mumbled, scratching at his chin. He hadn’t had a shave in four days. “Why don’t we forget all that and just have them take pictures of me? I’m tougher and meaner than all that nonsense you just said.” The officer sat there, mouth slightly open.
“A person is not actually the best method of conveying information,” he said. “Our expressions, every inch of which the machine reads, change too frequently. We are tempestuous, when the spirit camera works best with stability. You must trust us; we have honed their attitude to perfection. They will serve their purpose and then enact their own destruction as soon as it is complete. Then we will celebrate. There’s going to be a great feast, without a spot of metal anywhere to be seen. We will bake huge loaves of bread in stone ovens and sit around the fire, eating with our hands and talking. It will be glorious.”
“I don’t care if you celebrate by eating dirt, as long as the job gets done. I only have one modification. Consider it a direct order from the people paying you.”
“What is it?”
“Do whatever you have to do to keep these things away from the Indian with those scientists. I am to kill him. Nobody else. Nothing else.” Warclaw pulled his pistol out of the black box and held it in his hand, where it belonged.
Inside the Transylvanian Academy of Science, a machine two rooms wide clicked and whirred and chimed. All of its workings were hidden behind wood paneling, except for the small apparatus at the front. Diane Lattermoon stood before the apparatus, an assemblage of silver levers and brass keys, pressing and pulling them as Rosamin spoke.
“People should focus on the stuffiness of the air around them. They should avoid mechanical exhaust, windowless rooms, excessive sun, and crowds. First and foremost is the avoidance of any lip contact with others, whether it is the kiss of lovers or a mother’s peck on her child’s cheek. Is that… good enough?” Diane held up one finger to stop her talking while she finished adding the information. When she pulled her hands back the machine’s noises increased. Something dropped out of it and into a metal container. Diane picked it up.
“This will end your misinformation problem,” she said as she handed the object to Rosamin. It was a red wax cylinder pitted all around with complex markings.
“It looks like it should be used to play music,” Rosamin chuckled, but she stopped when Diane did not seem amused. “How exactly does it work?”
“Your guess is not entirely wrong. When installed inside a mechanical these cylinders play sounds at frequencies human ears cannot grasp. They issue new thresholds for behavior that modify the base understandings. A mechanical cannot disobey an order given in this format.”
“How do we get these back to the colonies?”
“I’ll test this one on one of our units. When I’m certain it works I’ll telegraph the sequence I used immediately. Our people over there will mass produce them on the machines we keep on that shore and send them out immediately. Like I said before, the solution should beat you back by quite a while. You’re likely to see its effects upon your return.”
“Thank you for helping us,” Rosamin said.
“Think nothing of it. I only wish this would be enough to destroy my father’s career.” Diane cranked her pendant.
“You don’t think it will be?”
“I think if he senses the public turning against him in a way he can’t counter he’ll slip away. He’ll reappear in another colony, perhaps under another name, and start all over again. He can’t make mistakes you see… He thinks when things go wrong it’s just because the Earth around him has soured. All he needs are greener fields.”
“At our symposium he recited a poem,” Rosamin mentioned, “that involved a woman falling madly in love with him and then committing suicide because he rejected her.” Diane snorted. She leaned up against the wax cylinder machine and laughed loudly. It was the first unrestrained emotion Rosamin had seen from the woman. Diane relished the laugh so much that she didn’t bother with her pendant even as she struggled to catch her breath. She just wiped a tear from her eye.
“Thank you. If only I had a hundred more anecdotes just like it.” She noticed the weakness of Rosamin’s polite smile. The microscopist wandered over to a window overlooking the shaggy top of the forest and its network of wires. The day was extremely cloudy and there was light rain. Rosamin felt the cool glass with her palm and wondered if there was a single window left in Two York that felt that cool. “I take it Mr. Rocks told you about the fate of the mechanical that saved you?”
“Yes,” Rosamin said without looking away from the forest.
“Are you upset?”
“I am. Well… I don’t know how to feel really. You’re the expert; tell me how I should feel. Should I miss it? Should I feel guilty that it was destroyed in my place?”
“It’s only natural your mind would make you feel some of these things for something with eyes. I’ve seen people treat a stolen painting like a kidnapping. But the mechanical never felt pain a moment in its existence, even at the end.”
“I suppose that’s a comfort,” Rosamin said. “I’m not the most selfless person. I only have so much empathy to give out. There would be more for that honorable machine if there weren’t… children… to think of.” Rosamin suppressed her tears.
“The Modest Proposal will not last thanks to you,” Diane said in a rare example of comforting behavior. “Your foes are the ones murdering children, not you. Your actions will save them. It’s unfortunate that your success will be invisible compared to their failure, but that’s the world we live in.”
“It is…” Rosamin tore herself from the window and walked along the cylinder machine, running her hand across the painted wood. “Why is it do you suppose? Why does the good person make less of an impact on the world than the bad? If we get through this there will likely never be a mother who comes up to me and thanks me for saving her child, but there will be plenty to call your father a murderer.”
“Pain is a better adhesive,” Diane said. Her look suggested she was perfectly satisfied with her own answers. “Success, like truth, is subtle. That’s why so many people find science dull, and by extension untrustworthy. The truth must be in the thing that acts the most human, that shouts over all the others or displays fear and aggression.”
“It terrifies me.” Rosamin leaned the back of her head against the machine. Its internal clicks traveled through the wood, across her skin, and throughout her skull.
“That the truth could be so fragile. My country is descending into barbarism on the back of ignorance. How does that happen? The solution is so simple: speak the truth.”
“Speaking is only half the equation,” Diane said. “A machine is only the sum of its parts. All of the parts must function.”
“Thinking of my nation… of science as a broken machine does not settle my worries.”
“Another burden of acknowledging the truth. You know exactly how bad things really are.”
“What reason is there not to give in?” Rosamin asked desperately. “Why not pretend the happiest answer is the truth? If I asked myself that a year ago I would say something like integrity, but what good is integrity to me now? By doing my job correctly and passionately I’ve been discredited, cast out, and marked for death.”
“You’re not the first,” Diane said with bite. “Remember you’re not the only woman in science.”
“I didn’t mean that,” Rosamin apologized. “I’m sure it was even more difficult for Janet decades ago.”
“Then your course of action has presented itself.” Rosamin looked at Diane curiously. “You must stick it out at least as long as she has. Just repeat her experiment and hope for the same results. If it works you’ll be famous, successful, well-liked… and bored with the rest of the world.”
Everyone was quiet later that evening, as the sun set. The scientists and Tycho were in their rooms, packing their belongings in preparation for their departure. The train out of the academy had a very tight schedule to keep, so the only ride Diane could arrange for them between supply trips was past midnight.
Fatigue was only one of the things muting the mood; disappointment was there as well. They all knew it wasn’t rational. They’d come to do a job and they’d done it. Praise was never part of the equation, but that didn’t stop them from wanting it. Bill thought about Valencia and what he might say when he returned. Janet tried not to think about the shooting pains in her legs that felt like thistle spines moving inside her bones. Wallace wiggled his toes in his shoes to make sure they were still there. Rosamin didn’t know what she wanted, only what she didn’t want. Getting on another train to get on another boat was at the top of that list.
“It’s a shame these people are so secretive,” she said to Janet as she folded some clothes into her bag. “If they’d let me I’d like to at least have a souvenir from this place.” Janet, who was seated in the room’s single chair, took off her reading glasses and thought a moment.
“Back when I was studying the yellow-lipped monkey on the eastern coast of Africa I was in the habit of taking shell and sand samples from every beach I visited,” she said. “Their significance only made sense in the context of my life, so they weren’t good for conversation. If bragging is not important to you, I doubt they would mind you picking up a stone off the ground. They didn’t invent those.”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Rosamin admitted, “but they haven’t let us out of the building since we got here. I’d like a real Transylvanian stone, not just a chip from one of the walls.”
“Leave it to Tycho,” Janet said with a smile. The sasquatch stopped folding Janet’s clothes, even neater than Rosamin folded hers, and looked over. “Would you mind Tycho? I doubt they’ll pay you much attention, especially if you go out the window.” The ape nodded. “Thank you. Find her a nice stone. Something with character. Something that says ‘I’ve been to a place of secrets and I had the courage to tell the truth’.”
“That’s quite the poetic task,” Rosamin chuckled. “Don’t burden him too much.” Tycho looked at her and waved his hand as if to say it’s not a problem. Rosamin remembered that the sasquatch was technically a writer sharing a book with Miss Baxter-Igraham and apologized for underestimating him. He helped Janet to her feet so she could finish packing before stepping out of the windowless room.
The ape went down the hall, to the nearest window. He was followed by a mechanical the entire way, but the machine did not protest when Tycho pushed the glass panes open. It was only two stories down. The frame was a bit tight, but Tycho was able to squeeze out and flip around so he hung from the frame by his leathery fingertips. The mechanical leaned out and looked at him. Whatever it had been told, it did not include a response to a giant furry creature climbing out the window.
The academy’s decorative gargoyles provided plenty of sturdy foot and handholds for the way down. It took only a moment for him to land quietly on the soft grass at the building’s edge. The strip of land was devoid of any other structures, thanks to it being only one hundred feet from the edge of the forest. Tycho only watched the breeze in the trees for a moment before he cast his eyes down to the ground and walked slowly along the outer wall. A man would’ve needed to squint in the vanishing light to separate the pebbles from the soil, but the sasquatch’s twinkling eyes worked excellently at dusk.
Tycho picked one up and examined it. Tiny, black, almost perfect in its roundness. Too small for Rosamin. He sensed she would want something more vibrant: the pebble version of the medal she never got. The next one was just a chip from the wall. The next turned out to be a snail shell. After that a shell with the snail still inside. Tycho sucked the creature out of its home with his powerful lips, swallowed it down, and moved on.
His path took him around the corner of the wall, where the academy’s outer barriers narrowed to mark the separation between the main facility and the field of small mechanical workshops. The next rock was too flat. The ape began to think the forest was hiding all the good rocks. He moved away from the wall toward the higher grass, but a small sound pulled him back. It was like a pebble falling from the sky.
Tycho spotted the rock as it finished rolling into the grass. Once it was in his hand he could see it was perfect: flat but not breakable, striped with a few veins of red-orange minerals, and cool to the touch. He flipped it over and found a dark oily stain. He touched it with a fingertip and brought it to his nose. His nostrils twitched at the slightly acrid scent. Even though he lived with Janet on all her private acres, she traveled enough that Tycho had familiarized himself with all the smells of the urban human world. It really was incredible how such a high proportion of them were just terrible. The one he smelled now was machine oil.
Another pebble struck his shoulder and bounced to the ground. Tycho placed the one he picked out for Rosamin into one of the pouches on his belt. Two more tiny rocks landed in the grass. The ape looked around in confusion; he’d certainly never seen stone rain before. Several more pebbles fell. The ape finally turned his eyes to the top of the academy’s outer wall. Five massive shapes stuck out against the numerous faces, claws, and wings of the grotesques. He saw ten wheels slowly rolling up the wall, occasionally dropping pebbles and bits of dirt that were stuck in their grooves. Tycho quickly looked down again and noticed the set of ten lines of flattened grass, just subtle enough for him to miss before.
Each shape had several hooks over the top of the wall; they were being quietly pulled up towards it by thick ropes. Tycho thought he recognized the shapes slung over their backs: rifles. They were awfully big, but humans were always making things bigger weren’t they?
Bok! A shot rang out from the tree line, the bullet grazing Tycho’s shoulder and drawing blood. The ape clasped his opposite hand over the wound, bent down, and tried to find the source. His discerning eyes made out twenty men following the paths of flattened grass. They were dressed like they belonged at the academy, except for the one man Tycho recognized as the one who had tried to kill them in the underground river. Bok! Bok! Bok! The others started to fire at him. Bullets chipped pieces from the wall behind him.
It was Tycho’s worst fear: something threatening Janet. She was inside, without him, and there were nasty things with guns forcing their way in. He knew if they were allowed in they would use the door, and they probably wouldn’t shoot at him either. The ape sprinted back to the place where he’d dropped down. He inhaled deeply and issued the longest loudest roar he could muster: Ooooaaaaauuurrrhhhhh! He never liked roaring, not since he learned signing, but it was the best way to get attention. The sound echoed out over the forest, giving the men with guns pause, with the exception of Warclaw.
The mechanical that had followed him down the hall stuck its head out the window curiously. Kpof! Tycho showed it his bloody palm. Kpof! He pointed out towards the trees, towards the attackers. Kpof! He pointed to the shapes now three quarters of the way up the outer wall. Kpof! The mechanical retracted its head out of sight. Tycho couldn’t tell if it understood, but then an alarm triggered inside the building. Bells clanged madly. Each mechanical that heard it set off their own alarm to make sure everyone and everything was on alert.
Now that they were warned, Tycho leapt into battle. He scaled the side of the wall much faster than the giant mechanicals of the Seal could, and caught up to them in no time. There was nothing he could do about the bullets occasionally piercing the stone eyes around him except hope that once he was close enough to the machines they wouldn’t shoot at him. Luckily, his intuition was correct. When the ape jumped onto the weasel-faced one’s back they stopped firing to protect their machine of war.
Tycho grabbed the sides of its silvery mask and tried to twist its head around. It was bolted firmly to the neck, and before he could get a better grip the ram mechanical reached over and punched the ape. He lost his grip and fell, only barely grabbing the curved horns of another gargoyle. He’d never felt such a blow in his life; the bruise pulsed and throbbed under his fur. The sasquatch resolved to be quicker, climbing back up and grabbing the weasel’s back once again.
By then the machines were over the top and storing their hooks back in their pods. The mechanicals split into two groups, with three machines heading right for the workshops and two turning towards the main building to break inside and locate the scientists. The weasel and wolf were the ones contending with Tycho; they again ripped him from their bodies and threw the ape down into the courtyard. Tycho landed in a tree, his hands hanging from the low branches like the sleeves of a drenched coat. His eyes fluttered closed as he passed from consciousness, leaves falling and resting on his face.
Back inside, the others exited their rooms all at once. They saw people scurrying back and forth, no human or machine bothering to stop and tell them what was happening. Tiny mechanicals, little more than wooden boxes on four wheels, sped through the corridors ringing the bells inside them. One of them had a flat sign laid at an angle across its top that read: follow me to a safe exit. The four scientists did as it said, but not before snagging what weapons they had. Rosamin donned her emission goggles and Wallace popped two shells into his phlogiston shotgun. Bill supported Janet with his shoulder and helped her keep up with the others.
It became clear the tiny machine was leading them toward the train tracks. Even if they had reached them, there was no leaving without Tycho. Rosamin volunteered to go after the ape; after all, he was out getting her a souvenir. She saw it as her responsibility.
“No, I’ll go,” Wallace said. His tone was stern enough that the others didn’t argue. Despite their dealings with Warclaw, he was still the only one with actual military experience.
“Is this the Seal of the Divine Image?” Bill asked. Wallace had shared what Diane had told him of the impending attack with the others. “That wasn’t supposed to be for days!”
“I can’t imagine what else it would be,” Wallace barked over his shoulder as he marched back the way they had come. When the others were out of sight he began calling Tycho’s name, a sound he wasn’t sure the ape could hear over the clanging alarm bells. An explosion rocked the building. Wallace hugged the wall to avoid a falling chandelier that crushed one of the small panicking mechanicals. Even with its wheels dead its alarm continued to ring, shaking every bauble on the chandelier. A larger automaton rolled by carrying a stack of sheet metal. He asked if it had seen the sasquatch anywhere. It did not stop, but it did shake its head no. Two men appeared carrying pistols. At the sight of Wallace and his shotgun they pointed their weapons at him.
“Easy,” Wallace cautioned. He slowly raised his hands with the barrel of his gun pointed toward the floor. From their garb and their expressions he guessed they worked for the academy, but were not accustomed to actually using their weapons. They said something to him in Romanian. Wallace knew half a handful of the language, something simply useful when they led the industry he worked in, but in their panicked breathless voices he couldn’t catch any of it.
Their conflict was resolved when the guards looked up in shock at something over Wallace’s shoulder. They fired at it; Wallace spun and saw the wolf mechanical rolling down the hall towards them, its head pushing the other chandeliers out of the way. The machine raised its rifle and fired. Kthoom! The cannon blast of the weapon was deafening. Wallace looked back and saw one guard fleeing. The other could not; he was on the carpet with a gaping hole under his collarbone big enough to serve someone a tankard of beer through.
The wolf never stopped rolling forward. It reloaded the rifle. Kpof! Its camera eyes were much louder than the smaller mechanicals, its gas emissions acrid like a campfire fed industrial waste. Only Wallace’s knowledge of the machines could save him. He thought back to his conversation with the game player at the fair; he remembered its talk of thresholds and dots in pictures. The mechanicals’ actions were based on their most recent photograph. They looked for patterns between the moments in order to guess at the locations of things. Wallace needed to act unexpectedly. His movement needed to be erratic and irrational.
He rolled forward, toward the machine with the snarling silver face. Kthoom! The shot hit right where Wallace would’ve been if he’d gone with his instincts. Instead he was now directly under the mechanical’s body, crouched between the spokes of its two wheels. The only problem was that he was now stuck. Kpof! Kpof! It searched the room for him. No pictures meant nothing to predict.
Wallace looked up at its bottom panel. Whatever it was made from, he didn’t think the two shots from his gun stood any chance of bringing it down permanently. The mechanical assumed it had lost its prey; it rolled forward once again. Wallace crouch-walked under it for the length of the hallway and then simply stopped when it rounded the corner. The thing didn’t have cameras in the back of its head, so he was clear.
Indecision kept him in place. The Seal was supposed to be there to attack the academy, so their altered monstrosity should’ve made a beeline for the workshops. Instead it roamed the halls. He couldn’t shake the feeling they were once again being targeted. The wolf was probably on its way to the train tracks to make Swiss cheese out of Rosamin, Bill, and Janet. Wallace was about to follow the mechanical when a few of the Seal’s men found their way into his hallway. They recognized him and wasted no time firing at the man.
The engineer was forced to flee in the opposite direction. One barking blast of fire over his shoulder frightened them enough to buy him some time. In their days there he’d walked every inch of the building he was allowed to walk, with Diane escorting of course, so he knew there was a spiral staircase coming up that would take him to the ground floor. It was at least closer to the train tracks in a sense.
He was a fifth of the way down the wide spiral when four ropes shot up through the middle of it and lodged in the ceiling. Something below cranked rapidly. Wallace raised his gun to shoot the ropes, but the weasel-faced mechanical’s head and arms shot into view. Suspended in the air it grabbed onto the railing to steady itself, crushing it in the process. Two legs dangled over its shoulders like locks of hair. Warclaw was perched behind its head like a child, one hand wrapped around its forehead and the other wielding his pistol. Wallace tried to lunge to the side, but he was blocked by the giant rifle barrel pressed up against the wall.
“Quit squirming,” Warclaw ordered. He flicked his pistol, demanding Wallace stand up straight directly in front of the oversized automaton’s torso. “I finally got you.”
“You’re certainly tenacious,” Warclaw said, trying to bide time until he could think up a way out from its iron clutches. “Am I right in assuming the academy hired you?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“They sent you across the ocean? Are we that much of a threat?”
“I said it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who’s paying who what, when, or over whatever the politics of the day are. I’m here to kill you.”
“Isn’t Rosamin your target? If the truth is going to have a face, it’ll be hers.”
“She’ll get hers, but I’m an Indian killer by trade. The best in the business. I couldn’t let that pair of flukes back in Proserpine become part of my reputation.” Warclaw rolled his tongue around in his mouth. “What… what was that little stunt you pulled in that basement? Where did all those bugs come from?”
“We made an impromptu spontaneous generation explosive out of a defective fermentation tank,” Wallace explained.
“Crocoducks and bugs… You know you’re only alive because things kept flying in front of my face and interfering with my aim?”
“Or you’re overestimating your aim,” Wallace offered. A bullet whizzed by one of his ears, and then the other.
“You were saying?”
“What’s got you so mad over Indians?” the scientist asked.
“Well first of all you stink. That’s just the most obvious one. Second of all you’re savages, and there’s nothing more offensive to me than a savage who knows he should be wearing feathers and war paint and dancing around the fire worshipping the coyote pissing on the next tree over… Where was I? Oh yeah. Nothing offends me more than a savage putting on the clothes of real men and trying to run their own country. You’re not supposed to have a country. True civilization was supposed to take your lands.”
“You’re a sweeper,” Wallace guessed. Warclaw nodded.
“And I’m finally bringing civilization to you. You know, I thought I would enjoy nothing more than peeling that greasy Indian hair of yours off your skullcap, but now I’m thinking it doesn’t matter so much. Being here in this strange new place, it’s like having my frontier back. Now that I know I can muscle my way into about any force I want to, I’m thinking there are probably a lot more frontiers this world has to offer. None will be as big and beautiful as the colonies that never were, but I bet there’s fulfillment for me out there somewhere.”
“I wish you all the best,” Wallace said. He tried to walk away, but the rifle barrel pushed him back again.
“You still have to die Indian. There’s no dancing your way out of this one. I’m just going to let this bucket of loose screws do it.” Warclaw tapped on the mechanical’s forehead with the butt of his pistol. “You hear that weasel-face? Blow him to kingdom come.” The mechanical’s arms pulled back as it used them both to support the gun. Wallace had only a moment staring down the barrel of a veritable cannon to come up with something.
The mechanical’s finger squeaked as it started pulling the trigger. Wallace hefted his phlogiston gun up as fast as he could and stuck it straight up the barrel of the larger firearm. He pulled his trigger first. The flaming pellets screamed, ricocheted up the barrel, and ignited the larger round. The side of the mechanical’s rifle exploded into shrapnel. Its arm jerked back, a large crack spreading over the wood on its shoulder. The entire machine swung back and forth on the ropes, twisting and smashing into the sides of the spiral staircase.
Large chunks of the ceiling fell, plaster powder dropping like snow. Kpof! The mechanical grabbed at the railing to steady itself, but tore it away instead. This collapsed the stairs under Wallace, sending him tumbling down to the next circle. One of its hooks broke loose and got caught between the iron bars of more railing. The machine’s swinging became even more erratic. Warclaw leaned forward, aimed down, and fired at Wallace, but the bucking of his seat hobbled his aim yet again.
“That’s it!” the mercenary bellowed. He pulled himself up and leapt from its shoulders, landing in front of Wallace at the edge of the stairs. Another hook came loose and clattered around his feet. Wallace was on his back. All he could do was kick, but Warclaw looked far too sturdy for that to have any effect. He instead kicked the grappling hook, which flew back and struck the weasel-faced machine in one of its camera eyes. Gears ground to a halt in its head. A plume of greenish smoke rose from the rims of its cameras. It flailed, hands reaching out for anything in its near-blindness. It found the edge of the stairs behind Warclaw.
Warclaw had no choice but to turn and look at the thing to keep balance. He lowered his pistol. By the time he turned back Wallace was on his feet, standing two inches away. He tried to bring the pistol back, but Wallace struck him with a flat palm squarely in the chest. Warclaw took a step back into nothing.
“You bastar-” he started to say. The mercenary dropped his gun and swung his arms in wide circles, but found no purchase. He dropped onto the mechanical’s smoking head, the added weight proving enough to rip the last two hooks from the ceiling. The mess of man, machine, and rope plummeted toward the ground. Wallace looked down and watched the destruction. He saw the mechanical smash against the floor and go limp. He saw Warclaw strike the back of his head on a sharp fragment of the railing… and lose some of it. The mercenary landed on the chest of his machine mount, blood pouring from his head and into the seams in the automaton’s wood paneling. Neither stirred. Satisfied he was safe, and that the groundhog was firmly back in its hole, Wallace ran to the train tracks as swiftly as he could.
The sweeper was not quite finished yet. Though his quarry was long gone by the time his eyes fluttered open, and kept fluttering, Warclaw wouldn’t let it end. He was a frontier man; there was no end. He rolled off the side of the mechanical and tried to stand, but his legs wouldn’t move. He punched at his own knees, ordering them to respond, but they had given up on him.
Warclaw felt a sharp pain in his skull that turned into a ringing in his ears. He reached up to check the wound, to estimate what size bandage it would need, but found something peculiar. The spot he touched had no hair. It had only a jagged edge of bone. His fingers moved up and down on something squishy. The pain came again. The world spun and Warclaw vomited on himself. Mid-stream he grasped that he had been touching his own exposed brain matter.
His heartbeat seemed to go; he couldn’t feel it at least. Tingling in his fingers marked the retreat of sensation. Warclaw was leaking out of his own head and he knew it. Dancing Rocks couldn’t win; it was destiny for him to lose. His head, which now felt heavy as an anvil, swung around on his neck. He saw that the fall had forced open the weasel-faced mechanical’s main panel. He recognized the spirit camera. A new place within a new place. He pictured himself sliding inside that black box like a lazy stream of caloric and staying there. If he wanted it, it could be his. All he had to do was try and be confident in his inerrancy. He didn’t have another box to hide the rest of the world from it, so when he put his face near the camera he just closed the panel as much as he could.
His bloody fingers fumbled for the switch at the back of the camera. They found it. Warclaw had so much he needed to tell the machine if it was going to do the job right. It needed to know that Indians were the spawn of the devil himself. It needed to know that when he was a little boy his parents told him stories of a sunset you could chase across a thousand miles. It needed to know that there was more to life than being a good shot; you needed something to shoot at.
The last thing he wondered was whether or not it could glean all that from his twitching lip and drooping eyes. Warclaw Majewski’s head slumped forward inside the mechanical. His heart stopped.
Kpof! The spirit camera took its first picture, not of his rapidly cooling face, but of the gaping hole in his skull. His collapse had given it the perfect angle of the surface of his mind. The working parts of the automaton compared what it saw to its multitude of extremely small reference pictures. It found connections with all sorts of information, much of it phrenological. Kpof! There was Warclaw’s stubbornness, plainly displayed on the topography of his brain. Kpof! There was his affection, what little he had for the world. Kpof! Warclaw’s withered sense of poetry. Kpof! His propensity to drink.
When the spirit camera was done it passed it all towards what remained functional in the mechanical’s head and chest. The new animus took hold of the broken body, fueled primarily by rage. The mechanical’s one intact eye took its first photograph in several minutes. The machine leaned off the ground on its elbows. It grabbed the corpse stuck halfway inside it, examined it, its limbs flopping limply back and forth, and tossed it aside.
What moved inside the mechanical was not Warclaw, but an approximation. It was a life boiled down to its essence, dried, cut into little wafer thin squares, and then put inside boxes. The mechanical thought of himself as newly born, the corpse he had just tossed his eggshell. Everything before was just a dream in the yolk fluid, a fluid he was now free from. He could see the world clearly.
He remembered his purpose. There was an Indian. The machine that wasn’t Warclaw got back to his wheels and moved forward.
Rosamin, Janet, and Bill stood by the side of the engine that had brought them there. They knew not how to start it up or direct it; the conductor mechanical was absent. When they did see somebody they were rushing around too quickly to answer questions. The Seal’s attack on the workshops took all of their attention. Even if they had the means to leave, none of them would go without Wallace and Tycho.
They weren’t sure if Diane was going to be much help when she showed up. She had a gun in her hand and a look on her face like she’d been stricken by all illnesses at once. The front of her pendant had broken off and there was a spring hanging out of it.
“Are you alright?” she asked them.
“Yes, but Wallace and Tycho are still in there,” Rosamin said. It was impossible to see the concern in her eyes through the thick lenses of her emission goggles.
“You should go while you have the chance,” Diane said. She hopped into the front of the locomotive and threw a few switches. The engine came to life; smoke puffed from the top. “That should do it. The gray switch is the brake. When the tracks branch take the right path twice. You’ll end up where you started.”
“We told you we can’t leave yet,” Janet said.
“Fine,” Diane spat. “Get yourselves killed. Let the colonies go down in flames. It’s no business of mine anymore. I have a real home to defend.” She turned to leave, just in time to see the wolf-faced mechanical drop down from the track covering. It raised its weapon, but footsteps on the covering drew its attention. Tycho swung in, hanging from the edge by his fingertips, and kicked the machine in the face.
It rolled backward, its body falling into the open door of the locomotive. It scrambled to free itself, tearing up the interior as it did so. Tycho landed on its chest and pounded on its front panel uselessly; the ape would break all his knuckles before he so much as cracked it. The mechanical’s arm snapped backward, then forward, and sent Tycho flying yet again. Its wheels groaned against the ground as it finally pulled itself free and rose back to its full height.
Before Tycho could rise fully the mechanical grabbed its rifle by the barrel and swung the stock low across the ground, striking the sasquatch’s ankles and sending him down again. It rolled up to him and raised the gun, preparing to smash his skull with the stock.
A beam of blue-white light struck the mechanical on the side of its canine face, almost totally melting the decorative metal plate. Rosamin rushed up under it, her finger never leaving the switch on her goggles. She’d never fired them for that duration before, and she could feel the heat of them on her eyelids. The mechanical surprised her by spinning and rolling backwards, slamming its body into her.
Rosamin moved her finger from the switch, as stopping the beam was crucial. If she so much as glanced in the wrong direction while it was active, she could’ve burned a hole in nearly every person she actually cared about. The force of the push sent her head to the ground, which took the choice from her. Another burst of the beam erupted, ripping through the spokes on one of the mechanical’s wheels and striking the side of the train, inches from Bill and Janet.
As Rosamin tried to lift her head and free the switch the beam crept towards the other two scientists, scorching a black line into the metal. Janet turned away from the hissing energy and pushed Bill to the ground. She dropped herself on top of him just as the beam passed by, singing the longest part of her silver hair. Rosamin remembered the initial energy source for the beam was her own eyes, so she shut them tight and extinguished it. She cursed herself for being so foolish.
The mechanical leaned forward and grabbed her by the shirt. It wrenched her free from under it and held her in the air. Tycho once again diverted its attention by leaping onto its shoulder. The new weight cracked its damaged wheel and sent it tumbling onto its side. Rosamin only rolled a few inches, not far enough to avoid the shadow of the automaton’s raised hand. The jointed crab-like shadow covered the entirety of her head. It dropped.
Bauf! A ball of fire devoured the wolf mechanical’s head. Flames streamed out of its metal eyelids as the machine finally collapsed to the ground. The smoke rising from its ruptured neck changed colors as the fire ate its various chemical ampules: from red, to purple, to green, to pink… Tiny red hot gears rolled away like rats from a burning hay bale, only to wobble a moment later and collapse. Wallace appeared out of the darkness in the academy side of the train tunnel. The barrels of his phlogiston gun were bright with heat, so much so that they looked like a pair of demonic eyes.
“You alright?” he asked Rosamin. The microscopist leapt to her feet and ripped the goggles from her face. She had serious burns around her eyes, with a few blisters formed at her temples; it was like a mask of the worst sunburn you’d ever seen. She touched one of the blisters and released such a fiery string of curses that Bill blushed on her behalf.
“How bad is it?” she asked, feeling the singed remains of her eyebrows.
“It’s extremely noticeable, just like us here in the open,” Janet reminded. She looked to Diane, expecting the woman to say something in agreement, but Miss Lattermoon was busy staring wide-eyed at the goggles hanging by their strap in Rosamin’s hand.
“You had those the entire time? We should have searched you more thoroughly,” she said. “What are they?”
“They’re my little secret,” Rosamin answered, squinting in the direction she assumed Diane was standing. “You have so many; don’t you dare try to take mine.”
“And you!” Diane honked, turning to Wallace. “You had that gun as well? Did you all bring weapons into the academy?” She took a deep breath after reaching for her pendant and remembering it was broken.
“No… I just found this,” Wallace said nonchalantly. He spun the gun around on his fingers and rested it on his shoulder. “Honest.”
“It’s time to gather up all this honesty of yours and get out of here,” Diane said. “Your business is done. It was lovely meeting all of you, but you’ve been a great disruption. Please go be that where it can be of some use.”
“It’s not our fault your prediction was wrong,” Bill huffed, only hearing the irony a moment too late. “The attack wasn’t supposed to be… is all I’m saying…”
“Our predictions only suffer when variables aren’t accounted for,” she explained, “and at the moment the only variable involved is the four of you. Get on your train. I’ve got workshops to salvage.”
“We can help you destroy the others,” Wallace offered.
“You’ve done enough. Go.” Without more of a goodbye than that, Miss Lattermoon stormed off.
“Thank you for everything!” Rosamin shouted after her. She still couldn’t see very well, but she decided to interpret the hand gesture over the retreating woman’s shoulder to be a friendly wave of acknowledgement.
They all knew there was no time for stories, not with three more of those monsters on the grounds, so they gathered everything up and piled into the train. Janet tended to Rosamin’s burns with a few powders she had in her bag. Tycho held his worst bruise under his hand and tried not to whine.
They gave Diane’s instructions to Wallace, and he started the locomotive moving. It crept forward on the tracks, gaining speed with every passing moment. It wasn’t fast enough though; it couldn’t prevent the undead weasel-faced mechanical with half of Warclaw’s mind from rolling out of the same darkness that had produced Wallace and grabbing onto the back of the engine. The sound of it doing so didn’t rise above the chugging of the train, so no one aboard heard a thing. Its wheels clicked against the tracks as it let itself get dragged away from the academy. In a minute the building was out of sight and they were surrounded by the thick forest.
“My vision is restored,” Rosamin said when everything quieted down. “Thank the star-holes. I was really frightened there for a moment.” She touched the burns again and hissed. She rubbed a few thin black seeds from one of the powders between her fingers. “I hope I don’t look too frightful.”
“You’ll scar,” Wallace said plainly. He had several permanent marks on his forearms from coming into contact with phlogiston that testified to his heat expertise. “It’s a small price to pay for what we just faced.”
“Why did we face it at all?” Bill asked, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a sleeve sticking out of his bag. “We weren’t even in the building anymore! Did they honestly mistake us for mechanicals?”
“No,” Wallace answered. “We were targets.”
“How do you know?”
“Because when I was looking for Tycho one of those machines attacked me. The groundhog rode on its shoulders.”
“No!” Rosamin said, with her mouth a perfect O. “He was here too? Did he say anything? What happened?”
“From what I gather the Two York academy did hire him, but after we got away from him back in the Proserpine Hollow he took it rather personally. He followed us all the way here. He said he was a sweeper, so naturally my head was most interesting to him.”
“The sweepers? They still exist? I thought they were all gone by now, or at least taboo…” Bill said.
“How did you get away?” Rosamin asked.
“Quick thinking and some controlled explosions.”
“I guess he didn’t learn his lesson from Potter’s Plot,” Rosamin mocked.
“He’s dead,” Wallace added. “The mechanical collapsed down a set of stairs and took him with it. He hit his head on something and split it open.” They were all quiet.
“It serves him right,” Janet said. “A trail of destruction can only end one way.”
“Does that mean it’s over?” Rosamin asked. She stood and paced up and down the length of the first full car. “Surely we aren’t worth any more resources to these people. What’s done is done. They won’t be able to undo it, so there would be no point to attacking us further. Right? We won?”
“There’s still the matter of our arrest warrants,” Wallace pondered aloud.
“No there isn’t,” Janet said. “I spoke with Diane about that. She’s sent a message, as the machine’s owner, absolving us of responsibility and explaining the mechanical’s destruction. If its owners aren’t complaining there will no longer be anything to charge us with.”
“They could just make something else up,” Bill said. “How they tell so many lies and sleep at night I’ll never know. If a hundred less snowflakes fall than I said would… I can’t get a wink!”
“So we’re victorious,” Rosamin repeated cautiously. “It’s all automated now. The truth will get out there, the Modest Proposal will be reversed, and the public shaming of the babe-eaters can begin. Oh how I want to be at the front of that snarling crowd.” Rosamin’s nose wrinkled as she bared her teeth.
“The process might be slower than you think,” Wallace said. He knew they saw him as dampening the mood, but false hope seemed more dangerous than that. “I worry Dr. Simon has people actually hypnotized.”
“Whatever happens I just can’t wait to be home,” Bill said. “We can all go and celebrate with Valencia and Goadphil and Mardin. I do have some truly excellent spirits tucked away in my basement, if the moonshiners haven’t gotten to it already.” He pushed the moist sleeve back into the bag, pinched the end of another one, and used it to wipe his forehead. They calmed enough for quiet to settle in. Wallace flipped the switch that fed more phlogiston into the engine whenever they slowed, but other than that they were all still.
“Does anyone else hear that?” Janet asked. The others’ eyes darted about. Tycho grabbed a railing above one of the windows and pulled himself to his feet. “There it goes again.” There was a sound, the sort of thing that usually turns out to be nothing but a loose belt buckle bobbing around, coming from somewhere. Tycho crept forward on his giant feet, trying to pinpoint it. The others let him focus. Bill was running out of sleeves to mop up his perspiration, so he grabbed a pant leg instead. The ape lowered a window and stuck his head outside. A few stray leaves blew in. “I guess it was nothi-”
The back of the second car exploded. The train shook back and forth as it dragged the disabled cars. They all did their best to brace against the seat cushions. Tycho had one hand on each aisle, blocking whatever debris was coming from getting to the others. The damaged cars finally broke off and pitched over on their sides in a tumbling pile of metal and sparks. The destruction was so loud they could hear nothing else. Wallace grabbed for his gun, but remembered his supply of shells was depleted. Now it was only useful for intimidation.
Tycho roared at the gaping hole, but he couldn’t stop the attacker’s approach. A pair of metal hands appeared below the torn metal. They pulled the cracked body of the weasel-faced mechanical up and into the car. It was too tall to stand, so it was pitched forward like a man crawling under barbed wire. Every move forward saw its elbows crushing the seats, ripping their cushions, and tossing the debris out onto the tracks. Its front panel flapped open and shut uselessly, creaking like the breath of a condemned building.
“It’s the one that was after me!” Wallace shouted. No sooner had he done so than the machine’s face turned his way. Kpof! A hook-ended rope shot out of its side, sailed over Tycho’s shoulder, and grabbed the flesh at the top of Wallace’s left arm. The hook sank in instantly. The engineer cried out in surprise, but it was cut short by the pulling of the rope. He was yanked like a fish on the line out of his seat and over the tops of the others. He left a spattered and smeared trail of blood along the way. Tycho grabbed the rope and tried to yank the mechanical forward, but wound up getting dragged as well. Rosamin and Bill leapt in to help, trying to wrench the hook free from Wallace’s shoulder.
“Pull it Bill!” Rosamin ordered.
“There’s… something different about it,” Wallace hissed through the pain. He had both hands wrapped around the hook as well. He tried to lock his feet under one of the seats, but the force pulling him back was so great that it just widened his wound. The entire back of his shirt was dark and damp with blood. Tycho gave up on winning the tug of war and instead charged at the mechanical’s face, teeth bared and fists raised. The machine reached up with one elbow and smacked the ape to the side where he shattered one of the windows. Then it grabbed one of the ape’s wrists and squeezed. Tycho heard the bones in his arm breaking before he felt it. When he did he unleashed a terrible sad roar, half-pain and half-defeat. His leathery fingers twitched in agony. The machine felt a twinge in its Warclaw spirit. It liked the pain. Pain was progress.
Janet, still positioned in her original seat, finally found Rosamin’s emission goggles and donned them. She’d seen them used and was confident she could do something with them. Kpof! The mechanical fired another hook and rope. It sailed by the side of Janet’s head, grazing her scalp and cracking the main mechanism of the goggles. The hook immediately reeled itself in, splitting the wood of each seat as it went. The air became a storm of splinters made all the worse by the roaring of the open tracks behind their attacker.
Wallace’s strength failed him; he was ripped from the last seat solid enough to hold and dragged into the mechanical’s reach. It scooped him up triumphantly and lifted him to the ceiling. Its iron grip had the engineer’s hands locked to his sides. His eyes started to burn as he wondered what the sweeper had done to the machine to make it act so savage.
The mechanical was ready to end its journey, so it reached its other hand down to its hip to get its pistol… except there was no pistol. Confused, it looked down at where the gun should have been. Something wasn’t right. It remembered there was always a gun there. For years it was there. It kept the gun under its pillow when it slept, but it wasn’t sleeping now. Perhaps the gun was in the same place its pants were, and its shirt for that matter.
It looked further down and saw that it had wheels instead of legs. Something wasn’t right. Its name was Warclaw Majewski; Warclaw Majewski was definitely in its records as a human being. Human nature was easy enough to confirm; it just recalled its past. It had been a sweeper until its prison sentence for holding those Indians hostage at the general store. Then, when it was out, it had to pretend the sweeping was done. The gun was there as a reminder that it wasn’t… but the gun was missing… the Indian must have been responsible. They stole everything else, so they must have stolen its humanity.
While the machine was distracted its grip on Wallace did not loosen. The Indian in its hand was the only constant in its strange, broken, twisted world. When Wallace was destroyed maybe it would go as well, into sweet black peace. Tycho snatched the second hook and tried to yank it yet again. The mechanical’s body was only slightly jostled. It used its free hand to grab the rope and pull Tycho into the air. The ape landed upright on the machine’s back. He finally seemed to be in its blind spot, but its head rotated completely around to stare back. Its free arm reversed its joint and punched the sasquatch.
Tycho flew back yet again, straight out of the hole in the back of the car. He barely snagged the jagged edge of the roof. He braced himself for another attack, but the mechanical’s eyes were drawn elsewhere. Kpof! What is that? Kpof! Can it be? Kpof! Can these eyes be believed? Every picture it took seemed to confirm what it saw. Out past the dangling creature’s feet… land. Moving land. The tracks below confirmed it. It was watching the land go on forever… The beauty of it. That was what the sweepers had sought. It was what its family had ground itself into the dirt for. That stunning endless horizon where they could peek the edge of god’s power. The mechanical reached out its hand towards the moving ground. So close… So close to its destiny manifested.
Rosamin ran up and jumped from the debris to Wallace as he was held aloft. She finally dislodged the hook, forced to ignore his cries, and dropped back to the floor with it. She saw the machine was distracted by something outside the train, and she saw Tycho pointing to something with his one hand not keeping him hanging. The rope. The rope was looped around one of the metal seat supports. She got the idea. The microscopist swallowed her fear and moved toward the mechanical, dropping the hook into place on the edge of its neck joint.
Bill followed her lead, grabbing the other hook, looping it around something solid, and latching it onto the machine’s elbow. When they were both firmly in place Tycho reached down with his feet, wrapped them around the mechanical’s torso, and pulled with all his might. The Warclaw machine’s wheels dropped back to the tracks. The force of the train’s speed pulled it out even more, not even giving it time to spin its head back around and see the Indian dropping out of its hand. It tried to reach for Wallace instead of steadying itself… and was ripped outward. Both ropes went taut. Two big chunks of the mechanical’s body ripped away. The rest was caught on its ropes, dragged behind the train. Only when it started to spin did the ropes snap. Pieces spun and split as it tumbled into a thousand bits that all wanted to keep going, to reach the land where the sun set into the ground and made amber waves.
Tycho used the last of his energy to pick up Wallace and move him to the least destroyed seat. Janet examined his wound and started to treat it. He wasn’t conscious. Tiny figures danced in firelight in the back of his blood-deprived mind. For the moment he lived in a world of flickering shadows and he saw how little it differed from the earthly disk he’d spent his entire life on. If he made it back to his employers, he certainly had stories to tell about the Transylvanian machines; they would be best told with hefty warnings slapped on. He wondered who would tend to the engine while he was busy lying there.
The Cleansing Prophecy
I’m pleased to hear from you again. I have received your payment in the mail and will be happy to give you another reading, but there’s something else to attend to first: our friendship! Are you surprised to hear me say that? I like to become friends with all my clients if I have the opportunity. It strengthens our bond and makes my readings more accurate.
If we’re to treat each other as proper friends you must tell me more about yourself and I must tell you more about me. Where do I begin? You already know I’m an excellent astrologist. What you may not know is what I plan to do with my gifts. I must admit that the papers are still skeptical of people like me, but I’ve been talking to a nice editor at the Two York Times who thinks a column from yours truly would be perfect.
It will have a little of this and a little of that. The moon is my greatest contact up there in the dome and I’ll be relying on her to help me make predictions that can help everyone. Love is born and dies by the tides of her light, something lost on lots of other seers when they’re only looking at the constellations.
This is premature of course. The editor says the only way there will be room for my column is if they nix somebody else. He mentioned to me, in a whisper no less so I’m holding you to secrecy as well, that their wacky weather expert Bill Nimble might be on the chopping block. He’s been gone, on some diplomatic mission to Transylvania, for far longer than expected. There’s talk he has run off with some gypsy woman. I, again you must keep this secret, know the truth though. Capricorn told me. Bill Nimble is dead. Struck by lightning in fact. It’s unfortunate for the man, but nature sometimes starts a fire to encourage new growth. I think I’ll call the column ‘Lighting the Future’s Path’. What do you think of that?
Now, on to your prediction. You asked me if there was a man in your future. I assume that means you’re after a husband. Astrology is not as simple as all that. The light can say one thing, but mean another. The stars can disagree… rather they only show us part of the picture. They are just pin pricks in the firmament after all. We see drops of blood and not the beautiful creature full of it.
I have consulted with Scorpio and Ursa Minor over you and they had much to say. They want you to get out more, during the right months of course. You need to be socializing at night, under clear skies. You need to be willing to try new things, especially new food and drink. From what I’ve gathered there’s something you need to imbibe that will alter your path and send you in the direction of eligible men.
While we’re on the subject of imbibing, I feel I owe it to you as both a friend and a client to relay a different prediction to you. It’s one I trust very much, even though it does not come from the stars. If you think it’s strange that I listen to anyone else’s predictions just remember that when doctors come down with something they rarely treat themselves.
For my own needs, when an unbiased sight is required, I go to a Transylvanian fortune teller that has been set up in my neighborhood for nearly five years now. They call him Reliable Richard. The machine is dressed as a king and he has an adorable gimmick where, after making his prediction, he bestows it upon you with a touch of his scepter onto your shoulder; it adds wonderful weight to the proceedings.
Anyway, Richard has given me a warning about my future and through questioning I have learned it affects the futures of all of us. Should you meet a man in the process of socializing at night and trying new food and drink, I insist that you must not imbibe a kiss from him. Richard has predicted a future where certain theories about the palpitations have been proven false and the real explanation has been revealed. He told me that the palpitations are passed in kissing, and to disregard such warnings is to light your future with a match.
If for some reason you don’t trust the clockwork seers, know that I’ve seen redness in the moon that reflects the generalities of his statements. I would hate for our blossoming friendship to come to an end because you were swept up in the moment and partook of a sick fire. It is caution and awareness that insures your future, not inflamed passion.
Remember what I have said, and always look to the firmament, and everything will turn out fantastic.
Dearest sweetest Gloria,
I can’t my love. I simply can’t. There’s been the promise of a ring between us, around our irises, since the time we held hands at the edge of that pond, but that promise is now dissolved. I admit that before I had excuses. I had lies. Some of them weren’t very believable. The reason for all the delay is clear to me now; I sensed a coming darkness that would engulf us both… or more of a burning brightness rather.
I’ve been to my fortune teller. She made it all clear. Every kiss between us, while beautiful and powerful, is a disaster waiting to happen. It’s the combustion my love. Its fire devours romance as well as everything else. We can’t be together because of it.
Your pleas are already in my head. We can love each other without kissing. We can wed without spending nights entwined if that’s what it takes for love to conquer. I don’t have it in me Gloria. I won’t be able to resist the soft touch of your lips on my own. Call me weak. Call me selfish… it’s the truth.
For both our sakes we must be apart until this dread disease has gone. If in that time either of us should take up with another then so be it. It could just be a holiday of sorts. You can run off with Wilhelm for a little while if you want and I won’t feel betrayed in the slightest. I will likely spend time with other women, free of kissing of course, but in my heart I’ll be waiting for the moment when you are declared safe. I beg you not to tease me or treat me as unfaithful because of my fear. It is men who are more likely to blow their tops after all. What you likely carry inside you scares me.
There’s also our moral responsibility to consider. We must display trust in the credence of these theories, or others will falter and become dynamite themselves. As long as I’m being honest I must admit I was never in favor of the Modest Proposal. It sickens me and I know you feel the same way. Every kiss we do not share could be a child saved. Our unbridled love could destroy hundreds of young lives.
My fortune teller also advised me to take a trip for a while. There will be a few more big fires before it all peters out. I’d rather not say where I’m going… but I think you should travel as well. I don’t know how I could handle it if I found out you were consumed in the sputtering flames of the epidemic when it’s so close to the end.
Perhaps when that awful restaurant closes I will return. Should I see you again… we’ll just have to observe what heat remains between us.
With the utmost love and concern,
Mrs. Lila O’Quinn,
You will not recognize the name at the bottom of this letter. I hope it stays that way, given my shame. I could not bear to look you in the eyes. I want to explain to you as best I can how we crossed paths without you noticing and how it has destroyed my soul.
I work with the Academy of Science here in Second York. I’m not a scientist per se, just an editor at one of the major academic journals. Up until recently everyone would have described me as rigid in my duties. Never had I let an insufficient paper or study through. Where others saw minor mistakes I saw deliberate attempts to defraud. That is why I cannot tell you how my usual suspicions laid dormant when the greatest threat of our generation reared its devilish head and swallowed up the academy whole.
Dr. Simon Nikolaus Nielson. I’m sure you’ve heard the name. He was the instrument of my downfall. When his work came to me preapproved by several key figures, I did not show my characteristic rigor. It wasn’t just foolishness that swayed me into letting it through. I was bribed. The bribes were never made explicit, but if you looked at my solitary life before and my life after with all the theater tickets, young women, and fine champagne, they become obvious.
While I wasn’t the only one it does not abdicate my responsibility. I let them publish their theories of racial vulnerability to disease. I let this flood of falsity engulf our streets. Not only that, I participated directly.
When my prejudices began I do not know, but all my life I’ve detested the Irish. I’ve literally spat on people who look like you Mrs. O’quinn. My hatred intensified in my youth when I got into a fight with an Irishman, the only violent use of my fists in my life, and lost badly. I covered my humiliation by labeling you all brutes. I happily quoted even the most tenuous phrenological evidence that your countrymen carried enhanced aggression and reduced intellectual faculties and happily stayed quiet when they were countered by later research. I fed on Nielson’s lies like oatmeal, used them to fortify my body and my standing until I’d become a different person completely.
The change went unnoticed until the event which convinced me to write this letter. I was invited to a soiree at Enfant de Terre celebrating the restaurant’s early success. I told myself I would go to avoid damaging my career, there were very important people there, but that I would not partake of anything on the menu that was the least bit unsavory. For dinner I ordered a simple meatless pasta and drank nothing but water. I even breathed through my mouth when the entrees of the people next to me were brought out steaming so I would not have to smell them.
I thought I was safe in the afterglow of the affair as we all stood around and had drinks. Immersed in a conversation about scientific impartiality, of all things, I absent-mindedly grabbed something small passing by on a silver tray. I barely looked at it, and thought the small stack of pieces atop the mushroom cap was some sort of fried potato.
It was not. It was dried, salted, and shredded flesh. You know the source. I am an evil man Mrs. O’Quinn, because I savored that bite before I realized. Once the skin of my delusions broke, I excused myself from the party and then collapsed against the wall outside. I induced vomiting.
Amends cannot be made, but I can and have instituted my own punishment. First I inquired as to the source of my single bite. The chefs there don’t like to keep records, but I got what I wanted by paying off one of their waiters. He told me about the little girl that came the day before. He told me about you Mrs. O’Quinn. It is not my purpose to speculate or judge as to your motives. I’m the one who helped turn the city into a place where your children were viewed as livestock. Whatever happened to drive you to hand over your child to that place must have been unbearable. I cannot stop thinking about your little girl. I have enclosed some money for you, should you not want help from the likes of me please feel free to donate it to a charitable cause.
I have moved on from my work at the journal. My last act was to contact a doctor whose work had often been disregarded as leaning toward the unethical. I paid him to perform an unorthodox surgery: the removal of my tongue. It was the only way I could live with myself, for I had abused the privilege of language. My words had scarred the world.
Should you ever see me, know that my silence is my apology. It brings me great joy to hear the talk of Transylvanian predictions unveiling the consequences of the great lies that infested my tongue. Perhaps I should go to one of those machines and see if there is still a future for me. Soon the streets of Two York will be full of curiosity and the laughter of children once again. Every one of their voices is wonderful, and they are safe as long as I cannot shout over them.
To a world of honesty,
Continued in the Finale
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