Roasting over an Open Fire
For the longest leg of their return journey Wallace was stuck in bed below decks, recovering from his injured shoulder. His inability to sit still had forced the nurse onboard to re-stitch the wound three separate times. She swore it was like he was trying to leave a trail of blood from Europe to America and that Tycho, whose arm was in a splint while the fractures healed, was a much better patient. Whenever she worked Wallace simply grunted along with whatever she said. His mind was on other things, like the surprising bedside attendance of Rosamin and the others. They were there like cousins whenever he was awake, ready to talk about whatever was happening on the boat. He wondered if they were simply in his life now, like hairs on a mole. If they tagged along wherever he went he would have to explain to his family why all these pale people kept following him around.
He was surprised to find himself expecting some sort of reward. At his company the work was the reward, and the wampum merely a placeholder for it. Despite that, all the strangeness they had made it through had him feeling like a parade was appropriate, but of course there would be no such thing. The truth was coming out of the mouths of fortune tellers. If Goadphil, Valencia, and Mardin were distributing masks as they had promised, they were likely getting some of that attention.
They arrived at the Two York port with no fanfare. There was no one to help them with their bags. The only stares they got were from those surprised to see that a sasquatch could have sea legs. Tycho helped them wade through the crowd and get to a street just dirty enough for its smell to overpower the salty sea air they’d been stuck with for so long.
“Oh the city reeks!” Rosamin cheered. Her hair was pushed back by useless goggles, which she now wore atop her head to disguise her scars as the residual red marks of wearing them. “What a stupendous odor! My nose hardly knows whether to accept it anymore.”
“Don’t breathe too deeply,” Janet warned. “We don’t know how much of the palpitations is still going around.”
“I think we do,” Rosamin said. She pointed at several faces in the crowd. Three of every five wore simple face masks covering their mouth and nose. “The masks! Our masks. Look, they’re selling them over there. I’ll go grab five for us.” She practically skipped off toward the vendor like she was off to pick up pastries or flowers.
“You’re all welcome to come back to my house while you make other arrangements,” Bill offered. “It will be cramped in there, but there isn’t a group I’d rather be locked up with.”
“That’s kind of you Bill,” Wallace said.
“You don’t think all of them have forgotten my face do you?” Janet asked Tycho. The sasquatch waved his hand to indicate there wasn’t a chance.
“Who would forget you?” Wallace asked.
“All of the primates on my property. I’ve had a few research assistants watching over things, but they don’t grasp the politics that are always at play. Apes are as fickle and restless as us. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few wars have been fought and new royalty crowned in my absence.” Tycho signed something to her.
“What did he say?”
“He says there is only one true queen,” Janet translated. Her tiny smirk was probably the closest she ever came to blushing. Her satisfaction was gone in a flash when she looked off in the direction of the mask vendor. “Does anyone see Rosamin?” They all turned to look, but there was no sign of the young woman. Bill called her name, but there was no answer. Tycho hopped onto a lamp post to get a better vantage point, but saw nothing. None of them noticed the quartet of uniforms and pistols shoving through the crowd towards them. The uniforms did not include masks. Each of the scientists froze as a gun was stuck in their back.
“Tell that animal to get off the lamp,” one of the policemen ordered Janet. Tycho overheard and climbed down. He snarled and flashed his canines, but Janet’s outstretched hand held him at bay. They could hear the ape’s knuckles pop as he clenched his fists. “You’re all under arrest.”
“What are the charges?” Wallace asked.
“You ruined all the fun.” That was the only explanation they offered. “Keep your mouths shut or you’re dead.” The uniforms were the highpoint of their subtlety, given they weren’t pretending there would be any sort of trial. They marched all of them off the street and to the side of a building where a big blue autowagon was parked. The back of it was windowless. One of them opened the doors in back, revealing Rosamin inside. She had a gag tied around her mouth that didn’t obscure her expression of pure rage. They were handcuffed and shoved inside, Tycho having to hunch over to avoid scraping his head on the roof. Two of the officers rode along in the back, preventing them from communicating with each other at all. When Janet tried to sign something to Tycho one of them slapped the elderly primatologist across the face.
“If you do that again the ape will kill you no matter what you say,” Wallace warned. He was rewarded with a punch in the stomach.
“There’s no point to this!” Bill shouted. “It’s over! Whatever the academy hoped to do will be exposed!” He received a punch as well.
“That’s no concern of ours,” the most belligerent one said. “We don’t care who’s doing what unless it’s paying us. Maybe you did win; they are paying us better than expected, so something has them spooked. Either way you’re going to their house for now. So shut your mouth unless you want me to use your uvula for target practice.”
After that they rode in silence. Wallace had his eyes closed; he tried to pinpoint their location based on sound cues, but he wasn’t familiar enough with the area to succeed. He suspected they were being taken to the academy or the private home of someone high in the conspiracy, but instead they were driven to the World’s Fair Hotel.
The noise level was certainly odd. When they were close they heard a terrible ruckus just outside the wagon. A hundred hands banged on the sides. People chanted in rhythm. One of the officers muttered something about the crowds, but didn’t offer any information. The scientists were still able to piece it together from the snippets of shouted songs over the sputtering of the engine.
“Immodesty! Immodesty! Immodesty!”
“Bring it down! Send it back!”
“Nobody wants an English breakfast!”
“Cribs not bibs! Cribs not bibs!”
Once the vehicle was past the protesting crowd it was driven around back and taken through a gate. They stopped. When the officers were satisfied no other eyes were around they pulled their guns once again, pulled their captives from the wagon, and forced them into the hotel through the backdoor. They started to smell roasting meat. Rosamin finally managed to spit out her gag.
“Oh god,” she gasped as soon as she realized what invaded her nostrils. “Where are we going? You can’t take us through there!” One of them grabbed the back of her neck and bent her forward, forcing her to walk. A pair of double doors was coming up. A bit of steam rose from the top. They heard things sizzling in pans and ladles banging against the edge of pots. Rosamin shut her eyes. The others followed her lead.
They were pushed through the doors. The smell of food was everywhere: broth, cheese, berries, fish, and raw meat searing. Kitchen staff squeezed by the line of prisoners as they were walked straight through. They all kept their eyes tightly shut to the point of pain; they had seen plenty of horrible things lately, but they did not need to see any of that. They already knew. It had hung in the back of their minds like a gutted cow on a meat hook for weeks. They were already permanently scarred by the thought of it. Bill silently thanked all the natural forces that he didn’t hear any crying. He tried to convince himself that was a very positive sign. The absence of crying meant there were no fresh victims; either their supply was dwindling or had dried up outright.
“You bastards are going to pay for every one of these lives!” Rosamin shouted into the floor even as her neck was in a vice.
“Keep quiet. We didn’t do any of this,” one of the officers said casually.
“You’re part of it!”
“Everyone’s part of everything sweetheart. If you live here it’s your fault. Every moment you’re not out there trying to murder evil men you’re part of it. Don’t blame us for being too tired to challenge the will of the people.”
“The will of the people! The people were lied to!”
“And I’m sure they tried real hard to get to the bottom of it. It didn’t take meddling from people like you at all.” That doused Rosamin’s burning rage. Cynical as it was, he had a point. Even now it was the supernatural air of mechanical fortune tellers that seemed to carry the most authority. With the microscopist quiet, they had to work to ignore the sounds of the kitchen. The pop of a knife through bone. The thwut of a tenderizer flattening meat. The wulp of bubbling soup.
“Where are we taking them?” the officer pushing Tycho at the back of the procession asked the man at the front once they’d exited the kitchen through another set of double doors. “The dining room?”
“Of course not. They’ve got customers in there. We’re going… huh… I think it’s this way. This place is laid out like a damn maze.” He led them down two dead ends, but eventually found the room he searched for: it was full of extra furniture for the restaurant. It had tables upside down on other tables, stacks of silver trays, and nearly a hundred chairs. Four were already set out in the middle for their guests. The police sat them down. As for Tycho, they cuffed him to a metal railing on the wall. The rest of the guards remained while the leader went to fetch their employers.
“Where did you get those uniforms?” Bill asked one of them, desperately hoping conversation would humanize them.
“It comes with the job.”
“Wait… You’re saying you’re real police officers?”
“What’s all this about then? You’re supposed to protect us!”
“Promises and symbols mean nothing in the face of greed,” Wallace said.
“It’s not as big as all that,” the officer retorted. “I’ve got kids to feed.”
“You mean you turn kids to feed.”
“Nobody made them hand theirs over,” he snarled.
“Nobody made these people consume children either.” The officer conceded the point with a shrug. They only had a few minutes of dreadful silence before the leader returned with two men: Dr. Nielson and Dr. Holmes. The latter could hardly contain his glee at the sight of the statuesque chained sasquatch.
“So you’re involved in this part of it as well,” Rosamin accused Simon. “I should’ve guessed.”
“I’m no mastermind,” Simon said, as if affronted that someone would consider him an intellectual. “I’m just curious what’s going to happen to you. You all worked so hard to avoid the illusion. You caused yourselves much pain.”
“We caused! We caused!” Rosamin shouted.
“Can we do something to keep her quiet? The party’s lively, but it’s not that lively,” Holmes suggested. One of the officers moved to Rosamin and stuffed the gag back in her mouth.
“Are we waiting for something? We’re supposed to be on patrol,” one of the officers asked.
“Mr. Dilcourt will be with us shortly,” Holmes said. Only thirty seconds later Strom Dilcourt let himself into the room. He wore a fine suit with a green jacket, but he looked very flustered. His forehead was sweating and his cheeks were red. He dabbed at his face with a handkerchief. “Are you alright man?”
“I am,” Dilcourt said, “I am. It’s just that I’ve come from the room where all the felines are dining. You know how nervous they make me.”
“They’re here?” Simon asked. “I haven’t seen them.”
“We thought it best to let them all eat together,” Dilcourt explained. “That dreadful noise they make when they eat was upsetting some of the Germans. What do we have here?” He looked over the prisoners and his expression soured, making his face look like a pumpkin growing around a pinched bit of its own rind. “Take those silly masks off them.” One of the officers went down the row and pulled the sanitation masks down. Strom examined Rosamin closely, from the broken emission goggles sitting atop her head, down to the scars they had left around her eyes, and then to the mask hanging off her neck. “You. The amount of money you have cost us with your ignorance… it’s staggering.”
“Her ignorance? Really Strom…” Janet interrupted.
“You probably talked her into all of it,” Strom said to the primatologist. “Yes. Ignorance. Ignorance of how things are supposed to work. We could lose the Proposal over this.”
“Do you like the taste of child that much you monster?”
“Don’t treat me like some tribal cannibal,” the chairman said. “The Proposal is only cultural grease. It’s the snake oil for the riches of Europe to slide across the sea on.”
“Tell me, when did it stop being about the truth Chairman?”
“It still is about the truth,” he insisted. “What you fail to grasp is that there is more than one truth. Look around you. In this age of industry you can build a truth out of paper and words. There’s no reason to acquiesce to nature when you can decide your own fate.”
“You’ve decided more fates than your own.”
“Do you know what I got from two decades of commitment to science’s truth? I can tell you it felt like nothing. It was thankless. People want simple solutions and they blame you for speaking the Earth’s language. With this truth, I can give them what they want and grow wealthy at the same time. All this noise will end soon,” Strom said, blowing past Janet’s objections. “People will stop caring. This protest… it’s just a bump in the road. One noisy cock that needs to be boiled for dinner.”
“What are we doing with them?” Holmes asked. Though he included them all in the question, he had eyes only for Tycho. Up until now he’d resigned himself to admiring the bone structure of the cat women from afar, but the ape had returned. Holmes saw the statue inside the marble.
“You have that business with bones, yes Dr. Holmes?” Strom asked. “You wouldn’t happen to have the capacity to… take care of some remains?”
“I can put something together,” Holmes said humbly.
“What’s the point in killing us?” Bill asked. “Everyone already knows the truth. As for all this… corruption… who’s going to believe us when you have the papers, the politicians, and now the police on your side!?”
“By now I’m sure you recognize the power of a face on an idea,” Strom reasoned. “Simon’s beautiful smile is the most convincing thing that’s ever passed through the academy doors.”
“You’re making me blush Chairman,” Simon said.
“I won’t let her face, or any of yours, reconnect with this mask business and hurt our chances further,” Strom said.
“Do you want us to shoot them now?” one of the officers asked.
“No. Someone might hear. Keep them quiet and wait for our guests to leave. Then take care of them and help Dr. Holmes with the remains.”
“We do have work we’re supposed to be doing,” the lead officer said. “It’ll take a bundle for us to say we all suddenly got the flu.”
“Then you shall have the bundle and your flu shall become real.” He waved his hands like a genie granting a wish. “You can see my man Crocker tomorrow for payment. For now, I have fears to mollify.” Dilcourt turned to leave, but Dr. Holmes tapped him on the shoulder. “What is it?”
“I was just thinking,” the doctor pretended to muse, “this sasquatch provides a rare opportunity. I know hardly an American mouth that has tasted a steak from such a beast. Instead of just throwing him out, I could euthanize him and we could have him butchered and served at the tail end of the evening. Imagine how delighted the English will be to try the elusive furry man of the tribal heartland.”
“Good thinking!” Dilcourt commended. “One of you help the good doctor with the beast.” They untied Tycho from the rail, keeping his hands bound together, and marched him toward the door. He looked to Janet.
“Goanna,” she whispered to him. He nodded slightly and let Dr. Holmes and the officer escort him out of the room. She didn’t have the opportunity to explain the word to the others, but Tycho knew its implications all too well. It was a keyword, a safety word not for Tycho’s safety, but the safety of those around him. Janet knew the harsh way any animal that harmed a human was treated. All man-eaters were put down, regardless of the man being at fault for his own demise. ‘Goanna’ was her permission for Tycho to defend himself or an innocent with deadly force. It meant the odds of survival were so low that it made more sense to face an angry mob later than the current threat.
“While we’re picking at the carcass of the opposition,” Simon snuck in, “I would like some time alone with Rosamin.” Rosamin retched behind her gag. She tried to fire bullets from her pupils.
“For what purpose?” Strom asked. He brought out the handkerchief again and slowly wiped the curve of his fatty chin. His throat begged him to stop plotting and get some rich chilled wine out in the dining room.
“As with the beast I feel there is an opportunity.”
“Any woman at this party would gladly have you Simon. You don’t need her.”
“Oh, it’s not that,” the mesmerist assured. “I think hypnosis could help us here. Perhaps she can be convinced to come out in favor of the Modest Proposal. It would certainly help us to have her rescind her theories and perhaps crush one of her own masks on a stage somewhere with the heel of her shoe.”
“Didn’t you say something about a person needing to be invested to be hypnotized?”
“I admit the chances are low, but don’t you think it’s worth it?”
“Very well. Be careful. Have one of them tie her to a chair or something before you start. If there’s nothing else…” Nobody else spoke. “Good. Rejoin the party when you’re both done, these Europeans drain me of stories in no time flat.” Dilcourt left without so much as a goodbye to his prisoners.
Simon allowed one of the officers to do the work of dragging Rosamin out by her elbow, which left Wallace, Bill, and Janet alone with the rest of them. Though her thoughts were of course with Rosamin, Janet’s mind couldn’t stray entirely from Tycho being butchered. If that happened, there would be no reason for her to even pretend she identified with her own species anymore. If she got the chance she might just offer herself the word ‘goanna’ and rip out the nearest evil throat with her teeth.
Even Tycho knew there was something wrong with the World’s Fair Hotel, as if a wretched hand had grabbed the building and twisted in an attempt to uproot it. He was taken down an askew hallway and then a set of stairs that went on longer than it should have. They stopped in front of a door marked No Entrance. Dr. Holmes brought out his keyring and immediately slotted the correct one into the lock. He opened the door only a crack and slipped inside.
“Wait here,” he called to the officer from the other side of the door. The sound of his footsteps quickly disappeared. Tycho glanced at the officer holding the gun to his back. The man stared right back.
“What are you looking at fur ball? Eyes forward.” Tycho obeyed. “Seems she trained you well. I’ve got a new trick for you: play dead.” The ape knew enough about humor to roll his eyes.
When Dr. Holmes returned he slipped back through the door without fully opening it again. He had in his hand a syringe full of an amber liquid that looked like the crust from a sleepy eye boiled down to its essence. He pushed the plunger and sprayed a little of it to clear it of any air. He moved the tip of it towards Tycho’s left arm; the ape reflexively snarled and pulled back. The guard’s gun barrel kept him from doing anything more. His lip twitched as the needle sank into a vein and pumped the liquid in. His arm instantly went limp. Warmth crept through his blood. His mouth dried up and for the first time in his life he felt too tall.
“There we are. You can leave now,” Holmes told the officer.
“I think I’ll stay with you until this thing has breathed its last doctor.”
“No you won’t. I like to work in private. I’ve sedated him; he’s harmless now. Go on back to the other prisoners.”
“No offense doc, but I’m-”
“I’ll see to it your second employer is made known if you do not leave this instant.”
“Fine.” The officer holstered his gun and walked away, nearly tripping thanks to the angle of the stairs. Holmes took Tycho by the wrist and led him through the door, locking it again behind him. The ape felt like he was slogging through a bog of mashed potatoes. Who was pulling him? Was it Janet? It had to be Janet or one of his new friends, because he wouldn’t let anyone else touch him. He was being led gently, so he must have been in a safe place.
The chamber was dark and its walls stone. Tycho’s species had better night vision than men, so he was able to see every shadowy corner. There were pits full of something that smelled terrible, but the odors drifted past his intoxicated mind harmlessly. A dozen bones were hung on the wall, next to framed drawings of the skeleton they had come from. Complete human skeletons stood on stands all about them, some wearing hats. A mountain of clothing was pushed off to one side. Tycho wanted to lie down on it and take a nap, but the gentle hand pulled him away.
There was no chair small enough to hold the ape, so Holmes walked him over to a blood-stained table and slowly pushed him until he was on his back. He tied two black belts around Tycho’s chest and thighs. He brought out a set of saws and knives, perfect for disarticulation. How he was going to transport hundreds of pounds of meat out of the room without letting anyone inside he did not know, but now was not the time to worry about that. He had to get to the bones first. He had to show Tycho what he was always supposed to see in the mirror, those bottomless eyes and canines like sabers.
Tycho thought he remembered someone calling the owner of the gentle hand ‘doctor’. Doctors were good. Janet had taken him to a few over the years: to have an impacted tooth extracted, to monitor his diet, and to give him an ointment for a nasty rash he’d gotten off a thorny bush back home. Doctors helped. He breathed deeply. And yet… something was missing. What was it? Janet always used to say something… She used to say she would bring him chocolate with peanuts when the appointments were over. She always did. Sometimes it was a bar, but lately she had been making him little cakes. Every time he needed looking at she spent a little more time on his reward.
She hadn’t even promised him anything yet. She wouldn’t do that. No promise meant he wasn’t supposed to be at the doctor’s office. Come to think of it, the doctors’ never smelled like that; it was never musty and acrid and metallic. Tycho looked at Holmes’ face. Humans all looked so similar, but facial hair was easy to use as a marker. He had never been in the care of that mustache before. He had seen it before; that was before they even left Two York.
Holmes had miscalculated. He’d simply used twice the dose of the sedative for an adult man, but Tycho’s muscle tissue was extremely dense. As the ape’s mind started to race he burned through the chemical faster than anticipated. The doctor had spent so much time gazing at illustrations of sasquatch bones, envying those in the tribes who could just go ahead and desecrate one of their burial mounds, that he never considered the properties of the flesh. It was just wrapping paper to him, a thin barrier between his eyes and the ivory jewels within.
Tycho strained against the belts. He started wheezing and growling. Holmes recognized the increased activity and went straight for a razor. A quick slice to the throat wasn’t something he could miscalculate. Tycho banged his palms against the table and finally managed to roar, but Holmes’ hand was not deterred. The blade approached. Its edge was set upon the ape’s delicate throat. Tycho swung his head toward Holmes, his shoulders too, and put all of his weight into it. The table tipped onto its side, knocking the doctor over. The razor flew out of his hand.
They were both on the ground now, but Tycho was still tied down. Holmes scrambled to get up, but the ape bit his bicep and held him in place. Holmes, still certain he would succeed, no bones had escaped him before, and people were certainly better at calling for help, silently beat Tycho over the head with his other fist. When that didn’t immediately work he flicked out his index finger and jammed it into the sasquatch’s eye. Tycho roared and released the man’s bleeding arm.
While the doctor went for one of the saws the ape struggled to get to his feet. Only when his face was flat against the ground could he find the leverage to get his knees under him. The table was still attached, forcing Tycho to run backwards into the wall and smash it against the stone three times; that split the wood and pulled the belts loose. He shook the debris off just in time to catch Holmes’ arm as the saw came swiping towards him. Tycho kicked Holmes back, nearly dropping him into one of his own corpse-dissolving pits. The ape made a run for the stairs.
He made it there first and started to climb them. The door was in sight. He reached for the knob… whunk! All at once the stairs flattened into a ramp. Tycho fell onto his stomach and slid back down them. He bumped his head on the stone floor and when he finally managed to bring his pupils out from under his eyelids he saw Holmes standing next to the wall with a thrown switch in his hand. A sly smile poked out from under his thick mustache.
Holmes dropped the saw. The man hadn’t had occasion to run in quite a while, but he took off like a fox regardless. His shoes gave him the traction he needed to sprint up the flattened stairs before Tycho could get halfway up. Holmes threw the door open, passed through, and then locked it on the other side. Tycho banged on it with his closed fists. The doctor breathed a sigh of relief. He removed his hat and wiped the sudden sweat from his forehead. Thanks to the error with the sedative he wouldn’t have the pleasure of peeling the skeleton from its chrysalis while warm, but his prize wasn’t lost yet.
He moved to a panel on the wall, its seams barely visible. With the flattest key on the ring he popped it open. His preparation chamber was never intended to operate like one of the trick hotel rooms. There were no traps specific to it inside, but there was a way. Behind the panel was a selection of switches and dials. Holmes made several adjustments. All over the building discreet air vents closed their slats. The preparation chamber had several ports for ventilation, so he had to close them all. Many vents were tied to a single switch, so nearly all the air flow in the World’s Fair Hotel had to be temporarily halted.
The dinner guests would surely notice the stuffy air after a while, but Holmes only needed a few minutes. He had a pump designed to suck all the odors of decay out of the room, should someone ever notice the smell, and in this case it would make a fine weapon. He switched it on. In no time at all there wouldn’t be enough air in the chamber to feed a mouse’s lungs.
Back in the dark Tycho searched for another way out. With his mind clear of the sedative, he started to see all the bones for what they were. Tycho had held the bones of his own before, but only in short reverent ceremony before their burial with the rest of his ancestors. He was not supposed to linger with the dead, lest they order him to join them. Even when Janet had taken him to museums he had kept a safe distance from the skeletal specimens in their glass cases; it didn’t matter if they were mammal, reptile, or bird. Every creature had family somewhere.
In backing away from the bones he found his nose assaulted by the stench of the pits. He clasped his big hands over his face and breathed through his mouth, until he remembered the mask that still hung around his neck. He pulled it back up and began searching the undecorated walls for any sort of door or window. Humans were silly that way sometimes, they didn’t make their entrances and exits immediately obvious, the result of spending too long in utter separation from the wilderness; they never felt like there was anything they needed to run from. He found nothing. The door seemed to be the only way out.
Tycho took a deep breath. He would just have to break it down. He took a deep breath. The switch on the wall that Holmes had used was easy enough to find. The ape fiddled with it until the stairs returned to their normal shape. He took a deep breath. Halfway up the stairs he took a deep breath. Three-quarters of the way he collapsed against the railing and took a deep breath.
What was wrong now? Tycho’s head started to swim again, but there hadn’t been any more needles or toxic bugs biting at his skin. He felt like he was underwater, but there was no water anywhere and he could still smell the pits; there was more stink than there was air. He took a deep breath, but it had no substance. The false doctor was on the other side of the door. The air over there would be clean again, because the doctor would never take his own breath away. For the first time in his life Tycho tried not to breathe. He launched himself the rest of the way up the stairs and pounded on the door.
The wood of it warped before his eyes, but did not bend. Black bubbles popped everywhere, but there was no air. Tycho’s heart raced and his muscles panicked. The only theory his darkening mind had to offer was that he was being put in a box; humans did that. They put things in boxes and stored them away for ages. Sometimes they were partly made of hide, fur, or bone. That must have been what was happening. The power of the box was sucking out his spirit and when it was reopened there would be nothing but a pair of boots or a fur coat left.
Janet and the others were in this hell of a building as well. They couldn’t get boxed, could they? Humans didn’t do that to each other. Tycho remembered the skunk apes people tried to home him with ages ago. They fought a lot, and sometimes gnawed on the deceased losers. Janet had said that all primates had a red scar on their soul, a boiling tear in their intelligence where the remains of the animal instincts were allowed to fester. She told him that humans were primates as well.
The wood cracked as Tycho put his entire weight into his shoulder. Once more and the hinges gave way. He spilled out into the hall and felt air run through his fur once again. He breathed, filling his mind with light and making it difficult to stand. He stood anyway, and kept his hands up in case he needed to grab the bad doctor, but the man was nowhere to be seen. Tycho hobbled forward cautiously, only taking longer strides once his insides stopped burning. He took a turn. Where were Janet and the others being held? He thought he remembered, but the place was twisting and turning like a burrow built by ten different moles.
A door opened. Before Tycho could look to see, an umbrella stand cracked over his head. He held out one hand to stop the attacker, but the assault was over. All he heard was another door slamming shut. He spun around. Was there even a door behind him? He rubbed the knotted egg of tissue growing on his scalp. He stopped. Somehow he’d found a dead end. He wanted to attack the hotel itself, to peel it apart like a coconut husk, but that would take far too much time.
Another door creaked open, but he was ready this time. The ape swirled around and pounced… on nothing. The door creaked back and forth seemingly of its own volition. A wicked jab of pain, like a sting from a wasp made of phlogiston, struck his left shoulder. He reached back and pulled out the offender, a metal clothes hanger with its hook covered in his blood. The doctor knew the strange building all too well, and he was using its secret openings to tear the ape apart piece by piece.
Tycho closed his eyes, because he couldn’t trust them. The doctor was like a trapdoor spider. He needed to hear him rustling in his hole, preparing to strike. Blood dripped down his back. The scuffle of dancing from somewhere else in the building shook the tips of his toes. A rat scurried through one of the walls… except it was far too big to be a rat. Tycho tiptoed closer to the wall and stuck his ear against it, following the sound around a corner. The sound of a valve turning. The ape knew what happened when the doctor laid hands on his machines in the walls, and he was done being part of it.
Tycho reared back with his fist, honed in on the spot of the wall making the sounds, and punched straight through. His fist collided with something, partly squishing and partly shattering. The footsteps stopped as the thing in the wall slumped down. Tycho pulled his fist out and examined his fingers; they were covered in blood that was not his own. He thought twice about sticking his eye in the hole to see what he’d done. It was alright; Janet had said goanna. The ape wandered off, eventually finding a stack of towels on a table. He used the bottom one to clean off his hand and the wound on his back, and then he carefully folded it so none of the stains were visible and replaced it.
Henry Howard Holmes was the only one who knew every part of his castle, and now he had the pleasure of being a permanent fixture.
“Tell me what happened to your face.”
“Nothing. My eyes are merely allergic to the sight of you,” Rosamin spat at Simon. She was seated against the headboard of one of the empty hotel room beds, with her hands tied behind her back and her legs straight out in front of her. Simon had excused the policeman and shut the door. He had his tear-filled pendant in his hand, but he wasn’t waving it about in her face… yet. “You can’t hypnotize me. There isn’t a single thing about you that’s hypnotizing.”
“I can think of literally thousands of women and men who would disagree.”
“Congratulations on having access to such a stable of morons.”
“Why are you so intent on fighting this to the bitter end? You’re not stupid Rosamin…”
“That’s Miss Bluff-Polk to you.”
“No, your name is Rosamin. You’re in no position to deny me. As I was saying, why do you continue? You’re not a fool, so you must know that the path of submission would make you happier. If you enter the illusion all the responsibility is lifted from your shoulders. All problems become the problems of the overseers and your life is barely more strenuous than floating down a lazy river on a comfy thatched raft.”
“The responsibility doesn’t go anywhere, it just gets ignored,” she countered. “The consequences come all the same.”
“I hear this consequence talk sometimes,” he admitted, “but in all my years it has never reached me.” Rosamin wanted to blurt out that it was his daughter who engineered the Proposal’s downfall, but thought better of revealing their encounter. He didn’t deserve to know where she was or what she was doing.
“Have you never wondered why you’re untouched? I look at you and see a hundred things that have made your life like the lazy river you mentioned: you’re a white man, some find your oily pouting face attractive, and you were born in the colonies. You’ve never struggled for money, recognition, or trust, and yet you’ve squandered all of them.”
“You can’t say I’ve squandered my talents. No one has advanced the field of hypnosis more than I.”
“Advanced in the wrong direction. For every person you’ve freed from the pain of surgery there are a thousand more you’ve deluded. Your talent has drifted out of the river and into a dark bottomless ocean.” Nielson ignored her statement and peeled off his jacket like a snake shedding its skin. He unbuttoned the top of his shirt and sighed as he sat on the edge of the bed. He stretched out, his hand making a wave in the blanket as he went. “What are you doing?”
“Getting comfortable. I can tell you’ll take a lot of effort. You’ll be my biggest challenge yet.”
“If you touch me, so help me…”
“Why would I touch you? I don’t need to do that. I just want to talk. I want to know what’s important to you.”
“So you can use it to rearrange the bricks of my phrenology like children’s building blocks? I don’t think so.”
“Not everything is a conspiracy,” he said with rolling eyes. “This is just a conversation. An exchange.”
“Given what I’ve seen lately it seems most things are indeed conspiracies,” she stressed. “Whatever you’re going to do, get it over with; you smell like dead children.” Nielson sniffed his underarm as if he’d just played an intense game of badminton. He crawled over to her and straddled her lap. Rosamin frowned so intensely that her mouth resembled a mailbox flap. Simon held his tear-catcher in front of her eyes and started to wave it back and forth. Rosamin did not close her eyes, because she was not worried… not about his charms anyway.
“These are the tears I cried for my lost love. Simon says follow them Rosamin. Follow them with your eyes. See into them. Feel the calm I felt once these were cleansed from my eyes. Simon says listen to their story Rosamin.”
“I’ve already heard your tale of woe,” she moaned. “Move it along.” Simon was undeterred; he kept the pendulum’s rhythm perfectly. He tried staring deep into her eyes, but there was no give. Normally by now there would have been a slight widening of the pupils, a crack in the door that he could shove his way through while proclaiming how kind the invitation was.
“Relax Rosamin. You won’t have to keep this up much longer. Be calm. Watch the tears. Sink into them like a hot bath. If you let your spirit drop I’ll catch it, I promise.” The pendant moved back and forth. Back and forth. Its path was still perfect, but it slowed some. Her pupils were still closed; they didn’t even seem to reflect his face despite how close it had come. He could smell her breath.
Rosamin watched with a stony countenance. She watched his cheeks grow as he leaned in until she could see the thickest layers of the face powder he used. Yet even as the rest of his face grew, his eyes shrank. Every moment she could see less and less of them as his lids grew heavier. The pendant slowed again. He smiled a little. His hand stopped. The pendant bobbed for a moment and then dropped into her lap. He was frozen in front of her, eyes three-quarters closed and a stupid grin glued on.
“Simon?” she asked.
“Yes?” he said dreamily. She wriggled out from under him and sat with her knees off the side of the bed. He did not try to stop her. She stood. He turned to look at her, but did nothing. She stepped over her bonds to get her hands in front of her and then waved them in front of his face. He followed them with his sleepy eyes. She had no idea what had just happened, until she went to scratch her forehead and found her broken emission goggles still sat upon her hair.
She pulled them off and examined them; her own face stared back, her nose warped wide by the curve of the lens. She took another look at Simon and backed up slowly toward the door. She turned the knob. He stared.
“Oh sweet cornbread,” she uttered. “He hypnotized himself!” Saved by the reflection in her goggles, Rosamin kissed the lenses. Even broken they were still the best thing she’d ever invented. There wasn’t a chance she would let such an opportunity pass her by, so she released the doorknob and returned to the side of the bed. “Simon. How are you?”
“I’m wonderful, thank you Rosamin.”
“It seems you’re mesmerized. Just like you said, you must have wanted it.” He nodded. She wondered what was lacking in his life that made him vulnerable to the process. He must not have been as fulfilled as he acted, strange considering his ebullience. “If I ask you something, will you tell me the truth?” she queried.
“Only if I want to.” Rosamin thought for a moment.
“Simons says you have to tell me the truth,” she tried.
“Alright.” She grinned and paced back and forth.
“Simon says: tell Rosamin if you’ve eaten any babes.”
“I don’t touch the stuff,” he said.
“At least your soul has that. Simon says: tell Rosamin whether or not you realize you’re a monstrous liar.”
“I am a liar,” he admitted as he laid flat on the bed, putting his head on the pillow. He grabbed his pendant and twirled the cord around his fingers. “I’m no monster. Lies make everyone feel better.”
“Until they don’t…” Rosamin reached over and grabbed the pendant. He let it slide around his finger until she had it all. She dangled it over his eyes and he watched the tip of it, like a drop of water ready to fall from a melting icicle. “Simon says: tell Rosamin if these are really the tears you cried over Linette’s suicide.”
“They are not. Linette was my cousin; we only kissed a few times.”
“Whose tears are they then? Or is it just water?
“They are mine.” His hands moved slowly up and took the pendant. He stroked the side of the glass with a finger. “I cried them on a warm June night, on the porch of the radiant woman I was staying with. I cried them as I fled from her bedroom in search of open air, but all I found was humidity and mosquitoes. We were going to be together; she had already disrobed. I was nearly there myself, only the underthings left to go, when I realized that I could not… take the stage.”
“What do you mean you co-” Rosamin stopped mid-sentence. She burst into a fit of giggling. “Oh I see. Simon Nikolaus Nielson, the man on everyone’s guest list as a man of ill repute, tripped over his manhood one night.” She put a hand over her mouth to keep the laugh from getting too loud. “Why on Earth would you keep them?”
“Because I am good with women,” he said, his indignant tone almost overtaking his sleepy face. “They love me. I won’t let that one night take it from me. It never happened before and it has never happened since. It was a one in a million momentary plight that struck me because the world is a cruel and unfair place.” The corners of his eyes sparkled.
“Oh, so cruel,” Rosamin mocked. Simon couldn’t pick up her sarcasm in his state.
“Now I use these tears to curve women to my will, the way one would string a bow. Even a moment of impotence is an expression of my masculine power.”
“Yes, so masculine,” she snickered. She snorted; she had to be careful or she’d suffocate from the hilarity. She needed to sneak back to the others, or perhaps outside for help from the crowd, so she pulled herself together. “Are you listening Simon?”
“Yes Rosamin. Are we disrobing now?” He unbuttoned his shirt further.
“No, no, we are not. We are never doing that. Simon says obey Rosamin. Simon says you must undergo a fundamental change of value.”
“What change is that? I’m already so wonderful. Perhaps you should call it an enhancement.” He rolled onto his stomach and yawned for several seconds. Rosamin flipped him back over and made sure he watched her face.
“There will be no more bending of women in any direction,” she ordered. “In fact, you now bend to their will. Women know what’s best for you Simon, you burnt little boy. You will put all of your trust in women and always seek their advice before you do anything. You will treat them with the utmost respect and reverence. Also, you will never tell a lie again. Am I… is Simon understood?”
“I understand,” he said as his head flopped up and down in a relaxed nod. “This will not make me impotent again, will it?”
“Your priorities need work as well,” Rosamin groaned as she ran both hands down her cheeks, “but I don’t have time for that. No, it won’t make you impotent. Enjoy your new life.” She turned to leave, utterly uncertain how long her instructions would stick in the man’s mind. She thought it likely that as soon as the trance wore off he would be back to his old self again, but by then Rosamin and her companions would be as far from the World’s Fair Hotel as they could get.
She opened the door and was surprised to find someone standing right outside; it was a girl who did not reciprocate the startle response. She wore a dress the color of sunken marsh weeds and there was a curved band decorated with leaves holding her hair back. The girl’s face was sharp and pale, like the end of an ivory tusk. She said nothing. Rosamin knew enough about Lamarckian practices to guess at the girl’s background; she was one of the malformed cat women of Europe. It made sense; she was the sort of person whose family Dilcourt was likely to court.
“Hebe,” Simon said when he recognized her.
“You know her?” Rosamin asked.
“I have read a letter straight from her soul,” he gushed. He patted the empty half of the bed, encouraging her to come over. Hebe stepped inside silently, her body not even bobbing with each step. She stared at Rosamin blankly. How the girl had found Simon was a mystery, but perhaps her cat-like appearance came with an enhanced sense of smell and she had followed his distinct mix of face powder and hubris.
“Simon has… given himself a sedative of sorts,” She explained to Hebe. “He’s suggestible, but seeing as your friends I’m sure you’ll take good care of him.” Hebe nodded slowly. “Good. Well, I must be going.” The microscopist backed slowly out of the room and eased the door shut, not feeling particularly good about turning her back on the cat. She wondered if it was wise to leave Simon with her, but they did know each other after all. Once she was out in the hallway she shivered from the encounter, but only for a moment. It was actually quite warm and stuffy out there.
Hebe did not sit down next to Simon. She looked into his eyes and saw the hypnosis, recognizing in him what she had felt during the automatic writing session. This was it, the moment she told him to create. She had let him take control before, under the safety of her parents’ eyes, but now Simon had relinquished control himself, with no one to oversee. He wanted her to do everything her lizard brain wanted and she was happy to oblige. She took him by the hand and pulled him out of the room.
They walked to the other side of the building and through a black door; Simon recognized the smaller dining room of Enfant de Terre. A dozen young cat women were seated around a few joined tables. The young man who was supposed to be watching them had stepped out for a smoke, but unable to remove the image of them from his mind and thoroughly harassed by the crowd, he decided not to return. Left alone, they had started to wander away from the rules of polite behavior.
Their meals were already stripped to the bone, and a couple of them batted at the bones with their fingers, making them dance across the edges of the plates and the tabletop. There was no conversation, because each mostly understood what the others thought, especially after Hebe walked back into the room towing Simon.
“All of your friends are here too,” he said stupidly, wondering how many women he could fit into a hotel bed at the same time. “Do you remember me girls?” Several of them nodded. “I thought you wanted to be alone with me Hebe; we can’t make love here… at least not until we clear the table.” One of the other girls, in a red dress and hair bows, stood and swept all the dishes in front of her off the side of the table. They crashed to the floor, dirtying it with butter and gravy. She crawled across the table on her knees, swatting at the remaining silverware until the table was clear. A few of the others hissed, but didn’t chase their toy bones to the floor. They had a new toy.
Hebe pulled Simon to the table and pushed him onto it. His head struck the wood quite hard, but he felt no pain. A surgeon could cut him open and extract every internal organ and he would feel none of it, because his mind had been put somewhere else. Hebe hopped on top of the man and kissed him.
Even through the haze it was the strangest kiss. Her mouth was dry, but not perfectly. It was as if all the moisture was provided by her recent meal: a little glob of fat behind her teeth, dew from a glass of champagne, and caked drying sauce on the roof of her mouth. Her tongue was covered in bristles that attacked his. Her canines poked at his cheek and drew a dot of blood.
Not to be outdone in the game of love, Simon grabbed her by the waist and kissed her back. He heard the sniffing breath of another woman in his ear, so he reached out one hand to fondle her. The table rocked as more bodies piled on. His hands flailed back and forth, grabbing whatever they could: a dress, a shoe, a buttock. What on Earth had Rosamin and the others been babbling about? Simon was mired in the reward of his lies: a swarm of grateful exotic women. The truth gave you tears in a bottle. The choice was obvious.
Sharp nails ripped through his clothes; they were pulled away. One of them took the pendant from around his neck. One of his eyes was blocked by the face of a woman licking his cheek, but he saw through the other as she popped open the tear catcher and poured its contents onto her outstretched tongue. Hebe slapped the pendant away. She had wanted those. After all, she had lured their new toy in. She was the one who baited the trap with her secrets.
“Do not fret my Hebe. There is enough Simon for everyone! I love you all! I’ll make your dreams come true! Better yet you can do it yourselves! Pick a truth and act upon it.” His words drove them into a frenzy. The hissing and kissing intensified. Nails raked across his back. One of them chewed on the tip of his shoe. What a strange place America was; it had adopted the Proposal and then immediately increased the age and vintage of the food. He tried to speak again, to tell them how wonderful they were, but there was a pair of hands around his neck and they were surprisingly strong. He radiated positive thoughts instead.
Hebe buried her nails into his chest. Blood ran down his sides. His shoe was gone and now his toes were gnawed directly. Someone swatted at his genitals.
Simon floated in his truth like a golden pool: the lizard brain was always right.
“Strom, they want you to make a toast,” one of the chefs told the chairman. The chef said it in passing, but stopped when he saw Strom’s red face. “Are you alright? You look like a crumpled ball of allergies.”
“Yes, I’m fine,” he said as he took out his handkerchief and dabbed at his sweating forehead again. He wished he had a special cloth for his armpits as well; the stains were becoming more noticeable by the minute. “It is hot in here, yes?”
“Yes it is,” the chef confirmed. “Some of the women are practically fanning themselves away.”
“Be a good man and… and see if you can find Dr. Holmes. He’ll know why his building is misbehaving.” The chef nodded and walked away. Strom took a step forward, he stood just outside the dining room, and stopped. His eyes felt like they were bobbing in a bubbling pot of soup. Still, the lords and ladies could not be kept waiting. The evening had a schedule. He took a deep breath and stashed the handkerchief under his neck and behind the collar of his shirt so it could passively absorb some of the sweat.
He strolled through the doors; the chef was hardly exaggerating. Many of the guests looked ready to pass out. Glasses full of ice were pressed against foreheads and shirts had one too many buttons undone to be considered appropriate. His place at the head of the main table was clear. A glass and an open bottle of champagne had been set out for him.
The chairman took his place and lifted the glass. He eyed the centerpiece: a tiny skull set on a bed of mushroom caps, surrounded by the buttery boiled stems. It wore a little headdress of gray dove feathers. Perhaps the little boy had been an Indian, or perhaps the chefs figured all combustible children were of the same stock anyway. He cleared his throat, but there was nothing to clear. The sound that came out was like the wind blowing through a deer pelt hung out to dry.
“Friends,” he began. All of the conversation faded. His guests stood and raised their own glasses. “We’ve come here to celebrate the great progress you’ve all helped create in Second York. The local economy is positively… positively booming.” The sweat stung his ankles like cactus needles.
“I should hope so,” Lord Leckie added from the side with a smile. “Now if we could just get a secession vote.” The others laughed politely.
“Yes, yes,” Strom continued. “I know the mayhem outside is a bother, but I also know you remember the early days of your Proposal. Growing pains, that’s all. People too afraid to acknowledge difficult truth. Anyway, I’d like to tell you a story; it’s the story of a young boy named Strom and how he fell in love with science… and with the cultures across the sea.” One of the waiters set down a tray of cherries jubilee. He struck a match to complete the flambé presentation. Strom watched the black syrupy cherries take up the fire and roll off the sides of the collapsing mound of vanilla ice cream. A few of his guests couldn’t resist reaching down with their non-toasting hand and dipping a spoon into the ice cream.
“Mmmm,” one of them moaned more audibly than she intended.
“As a boy I read the works of…” Strom’s train of thought dissipated in a cloud of steam. Heat swelled in his jowls like bread burning in the oven. He just needed to get through the speech; he just needed to look confident. As long as he kept his face honest the rest of the world would move with him. He told himself it was just fatigue from holding the city on his shoulders. He would finish the speech and step outside for some fresh air. He wanted there to be clouds outside blocking the sun, so there would be. A sip. A sip of the champagne to cool his raw throat and help lubricate the words. He brought the glass closer to his mouth, but observed something strange.
His hand gripped the glass the same way he would hold a large flower separated from its stem. Between his fingers, strings of bubbles rose from the bottom of the glass. These were not the ordinary dainty bubbles the golden liquid was so famous for. They were flat and tumultuous, rippling on the surface. His guests stared in amazement at the parlor trick. Flecks of champagne leapt from the chairman’s glass and turned to steam when they struck the tablecloth. Strom told himself nothing was wrong; the champagne was certainly not boiling in his grip. He brought the frothing glass to his mouth to take a sip.
Tipk! The glass exploded, no longer able to take the heat. Tiny shards showered the nearest people. The glass cut Strom’s tongue and his cheeks, but it was not blood that oozed out of the cuts; it was fire. Strom looked at his hands, glowing and pulsing red. His nail beds blackened and cracked. Fresh air. He just needed a little fresh air and he would be right as rain. The burning man excused himself from the table and walked calmly towards the exit, only faltering halfway there. It was getting awfully loud; didn’t they understand he would be back to finish the toast in a moment? He turned to berate them, but before he could his chin and throat exploded outward, shooting a jet of fire and boiling bile.
“Eeeeeeeh!” the men and women shrieked alike. Lord Leckie threw an entire bucket of ice on the man, but it was gone in a flash of vapor. Strom’s clothes caught and his top half became indistinguishable from a roaring bonfire. His feet carried him, the steps immaculate and calm, to the doors. He reached out to open them and collapsed against them, his face smearing across the surface as streaks of ash and greasy fat. Another explosion sent his stomach flying out of his back, but the goriest details were lost in the pulses of flame. The carpet caught. The doors caught.
Holmes, before finding a resting place in the wall, had closed most of the ventilation. Without free movement of air the caloric had concentrated quickly. Strom’s SHC infection had rapidly worsened after being coddled by constant access to the ice of social gatherings and the regulated climates of the fanciest buildings in the city. His incineration uncorked another mass of caloric, adding to the room’s temperature.
An older French woman still seated at the table suddenly screamed louder than the rest. Her white hair turned orange and burned away. Fire exploded from her collar. Her hand relinquished the lemon fork it held, sending it sailing through the air. It landed in a man’s thigh and produced three pin pricks of fire, like tiny oil wells set ablaze. The rest of his leg quickly followed.
Panic spread as fast as the combustion; the crowd scurried in all directions looking for other ways out. Strom’s pyre of a body blocked the main doors and its rising flames now moved across the ceiling. The air grew thinner as the fire ate up the remaining oxygen in the enclosed hotel. The kitchen. The kitchen doors were still open; it took them a dreadfully long time to realize because most of them had never thought they’d have to step foot in one. The mass of finery and fire finally funneled towards the doors. There came a new explosion and a new collapsing body every few seconds. Every last one of them had picked up the animalcule during their stay. They had caroused and kissed without a care in the world, because it was the blacks, the Chinese, and the Irish who had to worry.
Lord Leckie’s tongue exploded in his mouth. He called for help, but only belched fire. A woman in a corset burned on both ends. A charred face dipped into the cherries jubilee, seeking refuge in the ice cream. They were dead before they could surface and take a vanilla-flavored breath.
“I’m sorry!” one of them shrieked at the tiny skull used in the centerpiece. She took it up and cradled it close to her crimson breast. “I don’t want to burn! Spare me!” The skull offered no sympathy. Redder and redder she went until she shriveled and split like a dead frog thrown into a campfire’s coals. The animalcule was not concerned by their cannibalism. It did not distinguish rich from poor, white from dark. They were all warm wet sacks of caloric ripe for spreading their spores.
Strom had built the perfect pile of tinder, so much so that the fire raging inside the World’s Fair Hotel was the hottest the plague had seen yet. Paint peeled from the walls. Holmes’ matchbox of a home had only the windows it needed to avoid suspicion, and the dining room had none to vent the smoke or caloric. The heat could already be felt through the floor everywhere above them.
The kitchen staff fled in terror as the party exploded in their direction. Shoes clopped and squeaked across the tile. A boiling pot was ripped from the stove by a hand looking for purchase, its contents actually cooling the man. Thwum! Another diplomat caught. It was like a painting of hell, or a hedonistic landscape burning while it hung on the wall. That was the way it looked to the scientists anyway.
Rosamin and Tycho had successfully freed the others when the smell of smoke had driven the police away. They had nearly tiptoed their way to freedom when the guests that still lived started streaming through the halls. They all donned their masks first thing. Rosamin warned them that at such high concentrations they were in danger no matter what, but the animalcule was made nearly irrelevant by the raging fire and gathering smoke. Already the ceiling was covered in the stuff, and it forced them to hunch further and further forward as time went on.
“We have to get out of here!” Wallace shouted at them.
“Where are we? Is this the way we came?” Bill asked, one hand clutching a wad of fur on Tycho’s back. “They’re coming from the way out!” It was true; the path they’d taken into the building was flooded with panicked screaming people and the chasing heat. One of them grabbed at Janet’s dress and begged for help. Tycho couldn’t peel the man away, so he had to punch him into submission to free Janet before she caught as well.
“There’s a fire ladder on the side of the building,” she said when she was free of him. “We need to get to the roof!” With no directions they had to try every passage. Everywhere where there was a locked door they found a small pile of blackening bodies had left claw marks on the wood. The coughing came in swiftly, stealing away their air and replacing it with tiny tacks. Tycho was forced to move on his knuckles like a lowly gorilla to keep his nostrils away from it.
“The damn fools!” Rosamin shouted between bouts of hacking. “They might have killed us too! We told them so! We told them all so! It’s not fair!”
“The fairness is outside,” Wallace barked. “Keep moving!” He moved through a patch of smoke and found a wall. “Damn it!” There was nowhere to turn where there wasn’t fire visibly encroaching, but Tycho remembered Holmes. The wall there was hollow; perhaps they could escape through it. He grouped the four humans behind him like he was corralling ducklings and pushed through the chaos.
Most of the guests were now piles of collapsing black ash, with nothing left inside them but the occasional glass eye or filling. The scientists had no choice but to plow through the piles, to take pieces of them with them as footprints. Tycho knew all too well not to dwell where the dead dwelled, so he soldiered on. Eventually he found the place; the air was slightly less hellish. The ape punched through the wall again and ripped it apart piece by piece until they could all fit inside.
“It’s… some kind of secret passage!” Bill exclaimed. “What is this doing here?”
“Who cares, move!” Wallace ordered. They stepped over the bloodied body of Holmes, still gripping his keyring.
“What’s he doing here?” Rosamin asked, but did not stop to investigate. She did have the presence of mind to reach down and take the keys from his stiff fingers. They slid through the wall on their sides, with the heat frying them like griddlecakes front and back. The air kept getting fresher. The wall had to be connected to a way out. There were hidden stairs, barely wide enough to allow Tycho through.
At the top they found a locked door. Tycho banged on the metal of it and tried to pry at the hinges with his fingertips, but it would not budge. The smoke had climbed faster than them and now it bit at their eyes. Rosamin ducked under the ape’s legs and slipped in front of his rage. She desperately searched the ring for a key that would fit the lock. One went in… and did nothing. Another failed. Another, another, another. They were all coughing. Janet passed from consciousness and nearly fell back down the stairs, but Tycho grabbed her by the arm and cradled her.
“How many… ehugh! Ehu! How many keys are on that blasted Ehhh… thing?” Wallace asked. His back hit the wall and his head dropped between his knees. His vision went dark, but brightened up when the fire ate the bottom stair. He could almost see the wailing faces of those combusted in the climbing flames. They didn’t suffer the consequences of their actions; everyone did. Enfant de Terre was the mistake of the city, a panic reaction that left a wound more gaping than any disease and it wasn’t done widening yet. There was more civilization to swallow up.
Another key rejected the lock. Another. Rosamin tossed each failed one behind her; they clattered down the stairs to blacken and melt. Another key. Two more stairs eaten. Another key. The walls were orange lapping death. Another key. Three more stairs. So much smoke that she couldn’t see the rest of the keys.
She panicked and dropped the ring. Bill, hacking violently, went down and grabbed it. He handed it back to her, but didn’t rise from his kneeling position. Instead he slumped to the side, his breath coming in rapid puffs like a mouse backed into a corner. Rosamin couldn’t see the keys through the smoke. Sweat poured off her and made her hands even slimier. Another key. The fire bit at Wallace’s soles.
“Rosa… Ehugh! Ehu ehu ehuu…” Wallace’s voice trailed off. They were all going to die if she didn’t find it. She was supposed to find it. She had a knack for finding things too small to see, for figuring them out. One key shouldn’t be able to stop her. There had to be another way to see it; she just needed to use a different tool. The truth always leaves marks, it always makes sense. She squeezed another key in her palm. There was something… a mark in the metal! She ran her index finger over it. The letter R. R was for roof. It couldn’t be for rest room, or reliquary, or reception, because if it was they were dead.
Kalunk. The door flew open. They fell out onto the roof. Tycho quickly dragged Janet, Bill, and Wallace away from the flames and set them in the sun. The smoke rose from the door in great plumes. Rosamin dropped the keyring and watched the black clouds dissolve into the sky.
“There it goes,” she croaked. “There all of it goes, like it was never here. Oops we didn’t mean it. Oops we made a mistake. Are you happy now?”
There was no answer, but when she looked around she found they were not alone. The cat women eyed her curiously from the edge. Their keen senses had alerted them to the fire before anyone else and somehow, likely out a high window, they’d found their way up to safety. They must have encountered some trouble along the way, because several of them were covered in blood. It stained their clothes. Many had it all over their face and hands, but they smiled through it like nothing was there. Curiously, none of them seemed to have any injuries. One by one they took the fire ladder down to the ground.
Rosamin waded through them; she’d been through too much to care about the goosebumps they gave her. She looked over the side and saw the crowd below. Fire wagons were just arriving. The protesters had dropped their signs; there was no better sign than the blaze before them. It said everything that needed to be said.
“Rosamin!” Goadphil called from below. He pulled down his mask so she could recognize him. “Rosamin is that you? What are you doing up there?” He waved his hands and jumped up and down so enthusiastically that he actually drew eyes away from the fire.
“Goady,” Rosamin tried to shout back, but her smoke-singed voice couldn’t manage anything audible from that far down. She waved.
“We were on it!” he yelled as Valencia and Mardin appeared at his sides. “We started this crowd and everything! You didn’t need to go and blow them all up!” Her friends waved some more. It was time for all of this to be over. She made sure her mask was in place; that was how she wanted to be seen. They didn’t need to know the lines of her face. They didn’t need to see her as a feminine smile or a composed young woman. They just needed to see the glory of her work, operating as it had always been intended. It wasn’t dramatic, it didn’t provide excuses, but it worked.
She went back to Tycho as the last of the cat women descended to help him carry the others. Wallace regained consciousness just before they went over the side. Janet blinked a few hundred times and asked where she was about halfway down the ladder.
“Are we in a tree?” she asked the ape. He smiled at her. “It’s been ages since I’ve been in a tree…”
Bill revived on the ground and immediately assumed he had died. He grabbed Valencia and blubbered something about it being much too soon for her to go. It only took half the crowd shouting at him at once for him to absorb that he was still among the living. They were shepherded away from the World’s Fair Hotel as the fire consumed it. The fire wagons were there, but the attempts to douse the flames seemed sluggish. There was an unspoken consensus that it would be best if the building came down in its entirety. They wanted every last shred of the vicious acts there to burn away to nothing.
As the castle crumbled, some wondered what should take its place. The earth there was salted; no respectable person would learn of its history and still want to build there. It would have to be a memorial. Perhaps a statue that doubled as a grave site for all the poor children of the Proposal was most appropriate.
All of the caretakers of the young feline women had fallen in the fire and in the immediate aftermath there was nobody to claim them. They wandered around in the crowd as a clump, clearing anyone nearby. Janet had Tycho round them up, as she had experience with near-human creatures. The idea was only beginning to form, but, if no one from across the sea claimed them, perhaps there was a place for them at her compound. First though was speaking to Rosamin, which she did as soon as her voice was restored.
“Come here you giddy girl,” she said as she snagged Rosamin in the crowd. The protest was breaking up, its parts dispersing to celebrate. Some went to drink, some went to sleep, but none went to kiss. Soon the crowd was indistinguishable from the rest of the people in Second York, because they all knew fresh air reduced the risks. “You did it,” she told the microscopist.
“What did I do?”
“You stayed alive.”
“We had a few close calls,” Rosamin agreed and patted the primatologist on the shoulder.
“You misunderstand Rosamin. I don’t mean the men with guns or the mad machines. I mean the sewage pipes of society. There were a hundred things, many of which are invisible, which tried to keep you from the here and now. Nobody with power wanted you to succeed. I confess I thought you were going to get chewed up and spat out by the rickety scaffolding of our sciences.”
“I didn’t do it alone. I would’ve never left the shore without all of you. Where’s Wallace? Where’s Bill?” She looked around for her friends but they were being passed around and congratulated like children who’d just won at stickball.
“They’re men; there will be plenty of thanks for them,” Janet said. In fact, Bill was dealing with a barrage of questions regarding his death by lightning strike. “This is for you and it’s spoken honestly from one struggle to another. I admire your fighting spirit.” Rosamin teared up, parts of her face squirming like a dreaming puppy as they tried to retain the appearance of dignity. Tycho hefted Janet up to sit on one of his shoulders and stabilized her with one hand. He used the other to wipe the tears from Rosamin’s face. Then he marched forward, beating his chest and bellowing the way everyone in the crowd, who didn’t know his binomial name or his true one, expected him to. They roared their approval.
Rosamin Bluff-Polk stopped in the middle of the street and let people stream past her. They looked only long enough to wonder why she wasn’t moving. She let most of the details go fuzzy so that all she could see were the bright splashes of color on everyone’s masks. Blue, green, purple… barely any that evoked images of fire.
Gone was the apoplectic rage of those who believed the lies. Gone was the finger pointing. Sure there was still the odd person on the side shouting, but there would always be someone who could deny harder.
People passed out bottles of snake oil liquor and soda; they shared from the case but not from the bottle because they were happy and careful. They respected the tiny invisible creatures they counted on Rosamin to observe and unravel.
They counted on her, but they did not notice her standing in the street and basking in it all. Children ran by her, off to play a game. There were five of them and they had a rainbow of skin tones. They adjusted their little masks as they ran. Someday when the plague had passed, when their immunity had spread far and wide, they would be free to take them off and receive their first kiss.
They could look into each other’s eyes under a spring moon and only be anxious about their approval. They could giggle in closets alongside sacks of potatoes and shush each other when someone wandered by. They could roll in the grass, right into each other at the bottom of the hill, and suddenly realize they were consumed by closeness. They would not be afraid. They would not be afraid and this was why.
So Long Bill!
It is a great honor to be writing this, the farewell piece for the Two York Times’ beloved weather expert Bill Nimble. I will be taking his place come September, and my praise for him will only be capped by a stern editor wielding a word limit. I would fill this whole issue with his commendations if I were allowed.
I’m betting many of you bypassed his name every week and went straight to his predictions. You looked for sun, rain, or snow without asking what eyes could spot them in the sky before they happened. I’m not blaming you; I know I’ve certainly done the same. What I mean to say is that this piece will serve as a forecast for him, given that he has painstakingly created and honed so many for us over the years.
In order to predict what’s going to happen to Bill we have to first examine what has already happened to him. Just like with the weather we have to look for patterns and indicators. What kind of man is Bill Nimble? How does he behave on an average day? How does he behave on an extraordinary one?
On an average day Bill is a kind man, if oddly shy and nervous for such a public post. On my first day at the paper, when I approached him from behind and called his name he flinched as if a rotten fruit was about to strike the back of his neck. I’ve seen him apologize to a paper after reading the letters of complaint contained in them. I’ve observed this magnificent creature as he stoically accepted a restaurant order so bungled that it didn’t share a single ingredient with his intended meal.
His strength is elsewhere, in the way he holds to his principles, his responsibilities, and his friends. He didn’t have to share his weather model with me and the world; he didn’t have to teach me all its parts. Sabotaging my career and thus putting a coat of polish on his would have been easier than a debate with a Proposal proponent.
I once had the pleasure of seeing Bill in his home and having dinner with his closest friends: the others who helped him pull the city out from its self-imposed nightmare. If you are new to Second York you may not be quite as familiar with the tale that played out just three years ago. We were in the midst of an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion, caused by a particularly potent strain of the animalcule and the vulnerabilities of our urban environment. Our Academy of Science issued its orders and the members began experimenting and observing for a possible solution.
A solution was found by one Rosamin Bluff-Polk, who theorized that the animalcule was transferred in breath, especially the moist warm closeness of a kiss. This meant the cure was in temporary romantic abstinence and the regular wearing of face masks. That should have been the end of it. The plague should have fizzled before we had daily deaths, but a greedy powerful force had other plans. The chairman of the academy, one Strom Dilcourt, as well as several other prominent figures including the popular and dashing hypnotist Simon Nikolaus Nielson, saw an opportunity to kindle their wealth and fame with our burning suffering.
They deliberately began a campaign of misinformation, funded by wealth from Europe. They handcrafted their own false cure: the social quarantine and outright murder of those whose racial background was deemed to be vulnerable to SHC. Despite this being wholly untrue, they were able to convince an embarrassingly large majority of the population, even pushing through the Modes Proposal on a limited scope.
This was the one extraordinary day we have on record for Bill. Where most of his colleagues buckled under Dilcourt’s agenda, Bill was part of the resistance. Not only that, he’s responsible for uniting the three other people most integral to the solution. You see, Bill was already friendly with both Miss Bluff-Polk and the primatologist Janet Goodmoss. He introduced them, at the symposium where SHC was first discussed no less, to Natural American engineer Wallace Dancing Rocks.
With the pulling of a few strings Dilcourt had not managed to snip, those four became that year’s ambassadors to Transylvania in the hopes they could get the greatest scientific power in the world to denounce the racial hatred as completely baseless. This shy stammering man left the city he’d called home for a very long time to save it, and that’s far from the only thing he had to endure.
Along the way they were repeatedly derailed, delayed, and diverted by the threat of unwarranted arrest. On several occasions an assassin, believed to have been hired by Dilcourt, attempted to take their lives. On top of that, their visit to Transylvania was interrupted by an anti-intellectual attack from a local militia.
Bill and the others endured it all and returned home… only to be snatched up by Dilcourt’s hired goons and nearly killed once again. Luckily, really it was as Miss Bluff-Polk had predicted, Dilcourt, Nielson, and their financers succumbed to the disease and set fire to their Proposal restaurant. Bill and his friends escaped just as the fire consumed the building.
In the rubble they found not only the scattered remains of those exploded, but a basement full of evidence implicating the owner of the hotel-turned-eatery, Henry Howard Holmes, himself believed killed by the fire, in more than a hundred murders over the course of years. He is now believed the most prolific individual killer in recent history, having preyed upon the tourists of the World’s Fair.
I discussed these things with Bill and his friends over that dinner. I got the sense they’d explained it so many times that they’d committed it to memory, given how they finished each other’s sentences. In the story Bill always seemed to fill the narrative gaps like water; he was there when he was needed: holding someone up, calming someone down, saying something appropriately human in the strangest times. There in his home they ate like normal people, paying no attention to my admiration.
Knowing how Bill works, I can only predict two things: happiness and success. The first seems imminent, as he will be wedding Valencia Waithe, a woman he met during his epic journey, next month. As for his success, there are rumors that he is the next candidate for the chairman of the Second York Academy of Science. To me it is a certainty. Thank you Bill, and enjoy the sunlight.
March of the Red Apes
Salish baked under the sun. The needles on the trees rapidly browned, so much so that they could be heard crinkling and rustling under their withering shade. Postmaster Rutger crept through the forest, thinking every popping needle was the hairy foot of the enemy on the branch above him. He carried a large bag on his bent back, loaded with the communications of the conflict. There was a small device clipped to the edge of the bag’s opening; one pull on its cord would ignite the phlogiston lining and burn it all up so the enemy couldn’t read any of it, not that most of the enemy could read. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and trudged on. Just a little further, he thought. This mountain man better be worth it. I don’t even see how he could be. If the Naturals can’t keep them back how could anybody else?
So far nothing had stopped them. They’d emerged from Mexico, but it wasn’t the fault of the N.T.A’s lower neighbor; they were merely the way in for the invaders. The secret laboratories had been the problem, and the ideology across the world that ran them. Tick! Postmaster Rutger whirled around before realizing his own foot had snapped the twig. He put one hand over his racing heart to slow it.
He knew he had to be getting close when the cicadas started screeching. They were part of the directions he had been given. Obviously he had hoped for street names, but this far in the wilderness there was no chance of that. There was a pull on his mind, an old hook he wished to polish where he stored the memories of the days before the war, when he was just a postmaster. Conscription had been their only option, and being a man just above ideal combat age gave Rutger the choice of acting as a dispatcher or courier. If he had known it meant trekking this far into-
“Stop right there.” Rutger stopped in his tracks. A human voice. Female. No Russian accent. He turned to see a black-haired girl who couldn’t have been more than twenty. Her tribal army jacket was one size too big and her rifle’s rusty edges looked like teeth lined in plaque. “What business have you out here?”
“I’ve been sent to find the mountain man… the one they say mounted the Salish resistance.” He felt stupid saying it; how could one man protect the entire tribal territory of Salish?
“Are you a spy?”
“No, damn girl.” He turned and eyed her sternly. Surely he outranked her; she was barely out of pigtails. His own colonial uniform didn’t look much better; nature had claimed three of its buttons. They were in different armies, but as the threat grew direr their cooperation had become as fluid as it was necessary. “I’ve got orders for him.”
“He’s not colonial.”
“You know him?”
“He’s my commanding officer,” she said proudly, finally lowering her rifle.
“Well these are authorized from the tribes too. See, I’ve got all kinds of seals. I don’t even know what half of them mean.” He dug out some of his documentation and held it up in front of her like a royal decree. She didn’t bother examining it closely.
“He’s not tribal either.”
“Who claims him?”
“How is that possible? Is he a Russian traitor?”
“No. It would be best if I just took you to him.”
“Is it far?”
“Not too far. This way.” He stuffed the papers back in his bag and followed her through the forest. Perhaps if he’d been better hydrated he would have insisted on walking alongside her instead of flagging behind. “Do you want some help with that bag?” she eventually asked.
“No,” he panted. “No I’ve been carrying this since… huh… yes. Yes please.” He dropped to a crouch and let her take it off of his shoulders. Both his shoulders burned and loosened, like wax melting off a candle. If he outranked her, then she should carry his bags. To her credit the Natural girl slung the heavy thing over one shoulder and continued on at the same pace as before. Their boots smacked against rounded stones as they reached a creek. Rutger dropped down again and scooped up a handful of the clear water. He was about to splash it all over his face.
“I wouldn’t,” the girl warned. “There’s an ape camp upstream. They pee in there.” Rutger let the water slip between his fingers. He wiped them on his pants and got back to walking. Twice she held her hand up to stop him and they stood silently for thirty seconds, listening for anything that wasn’t falling pine needles. The girl sniffed the air. It wasn’t a Natural tactic; the apes could often be smelled before they were heard. She had them traveling upwind as long as possible.
Eventually the trees cleared and revealed a small field alongside a steep rocky outcropping. Sandwiched between them was a fort of wooden columns that should’ve been abandoned, but was instead bustling. Tribe soldiers, most of them clearly wearing a month of sweat in their clothes, carted supplies back and forth out of the fort’s gate.
“Is this the Salish resistance?” he asked, underwhelmed. He’d expected something so well camouflaged that he wouldn’t see it until his nose bumped into it.
“It’s a resistance… and it is in Salish,” the girl said. “Salish is a big place… bigger than most of your colonies. There might be another resistance around here somewhere.”
“But you have the mountain man,” he said.
“We do.” She beckoned him to follow. They passed through the gates without drawing too many stares. Once inside the walls Rutger noticed there were some U.C.A soldiers there as well. He asked them how they got there and they all answered similarly: their companies were destroyed, but they were rescued and nursed back to fighting form by the mountain man. When Rutger asked what the man was like he got strange vague answers and laughter.
They came to a small structure in the back of the fort which was camouflaged in the way Rutger had hoped, but not for the same reason. Leafy branches hung over the awning, spider webs filling the gaps. Lazy lizards with black bodies and bright blue tails bathed in sunlight on the railing, paying no attention to the two as they came closer. The frame held no door, but there was a screen of vines hanging down in front of it. The girl pushed them aside, grabbed Rutger by the hand, and pulled him through. Even in these harsh times her skin was soft, reminding Rutger how the war had eaten up everyone.
The room was dark and there was a thick carpet of wet moss under his boots. She asked him to take off his shoes after she removed her own. He expected it to feel slimy, but the natural carpet was extremely refreshing, even more than a swig from the creek would’ve been. It was cool. It sucked the tension down and out of the soles of his feet, leaving him feeling like a sapling.
The girl set down the bag under the watchful black eyes of a tame old opossum. Its tail curled, as if giving them permission to speak to him. There was a sort of bed in the back, but it was completely round. Another screen of vines circled it, hiding the details of the man from Rutger. He could see that the man sat on a cushion with his legs crossed; he was absurdly tall and his limbs long enough to pitch a tent around. A walking stick leaned next to the bed with the head of a chimpanzee carved on the top. A giant hand reached out, grabbed the stick, and used it to push the vines aside.
“An ape!” Rutger exclaimed. “You’re joking! The mountain man is one of them!” The creature on the bed wasn’t quite like the ones he’d done battle with; it was taller, thinner, and had a less brutish face. The fur on its neck extended into a long beard dotted with gray. Its eyes were wreathed in wrinkles and its expression soft enough to keep Rutger from going for his pistol. It picked a dry black seedpod out of a bowl at its side and dexterously used its lips to split it open and swallow the contents.
“You must show respect,” the girl said. She reached over the ape’s knee and took one of the pods herself. She split it open with the tips of her fingers and handed Rutger a seed. He cautiously took it and popped it in his mouth, but didn’t swallow. “He has fought more of the red apes than any of us.”
“What is he?” Rutger asked around the seed.
“He is a sasquatch. His people were here even before us. His name is Tycho.”
“Tycho?” Rutger remembered something from ages ago, a newspaper story about diseases and lies. He remembered there being a big ape in the background of all the photos. “You don’t mean… that woman’s pet? The one who helped oust the Two York Proposal?”
“One and the same.”
“That was decades ago. She’s-”
“Sasquatch are very long-lived. Over a hundred he tells me.”
“You can communicate with him?”
“He speaks simple sign language. Many of us have learned. He told us the red apes come from skunk apes, not sasquatch. His friend, the woman, taught him everything there is to know about the stinkers.” Tycho held out his hand. Rutger cautiously took it; they shook. He swallowed the seed.
“I hope you can read,” Rutger said. He pulled out the pleas for help with their official seals and handed them to Tycho. The ape read carefully, tracing his position on each line with a leathery fingertip. Rutger wasn’t supposed to, but he had read nearly everything he was carrying; lonely nights by a fire will make you grab for anything more complex than a skipping rock. Those in charge didn’t know if the mountain man was well-informed, well-equipped, or simply skilled in the art of war, so they included a complete summary as to how the N.T.A and U.C.A had found themselves caught in Russia’s web.
The country across the world had a socialist government that had taken a turn towards the mad. A fool named Lysenko had them believing in a new radical Lamarckism. Formally a botanist, Lysenko taught them torturing plants and animals meant their offspring would be infinitely stronger. The message to the people was clear: we will clip the leaves from your food now, we will have you work all day long, and someday the grain will be plentiful and the children will be able to leap mountains. The problem was that no matter how much grain Lysenkoism froze to make it strong, no matter how many leaves they clipped, the yield did not increase. Until results were produced, food needed to be taken.
With the people weak, it was up to the new science to build their army. A mad doctor called Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov provided the solution, coincidentally ignoring the tenets of Lysenkoism in his work. Inspired by shows of trained sasquatch, Ivanov believed there to be great potential in the creatures. His early efforts to hybridize by inseminating women with the seed of the sasquatch failed, but his efforts with skunk apes were successful.
The resulting creatures grew quickly. Having a social structure based more on domination than the ancestral observance of the sasquatch, they learned how to take orders easily and learned little else after. The brutes were big as gorillas, covered in fur ranging from gray and orange to white and red, and were adaptable to most environments. Special uniforms were made so all would know to what country they belonged.
Bands of the beasts now roamed across Europe and the Americas, raiding towns, cities, and farms for food supplies. Their flesh was dense and their temper unmatched; the first few bullets only seemed to enrage them. They showed no fear in battle; every retreat so far had men scrambling in the opposite direction. Rutger himself had seen a man grabbed by the upper jaw, pulled into a horde of the creatures, and swiftly disemboweled and eaten.
“He says we will go with you,” the girl translated from Tycho’s signing. She looked slightly nauseated by the idea, but did not contradict him. Tycho groaned as he lifted himself off the bed to his full height, his head brushing against a few dangling leaves.
“All of you? That’s… wonderful,” Rutger said. If nothing else it meant he did not have to travel back through ape-infested woods alone. “Might I ask how you all have survived? How do you fight them out here?” Tycho signed.
“He says all the red apes respect is authority,” the girl translated. “If you beat the biggest ape in the bunch in combat, the rest will either flee or submit to you until they realize your cruelty does not match theirs. He says we could win this war by beating the lies of Lysenko. Without the appearance of authority the apes would scatter.”
“I didn’t realize the red apes had commanders. None of them wear officer’s uniforms.”
“He says the red apes’ cruelty is a sign of their fear. In truth they are a society of followers and none are fit to command.” Tycho held up his hand; it wasn’t a sign. The girl stopped talking. They all listened. Someone screamed. There came sounds of things leaping from the fort’s walls to the straw-covered ground. Rifles reported.
“It’s the apes!” Rutger gasped. “The ones that can shoot by the sound of it!” He ran for his bag and wrapped his hand around the cord. If he so much as saw one yellow fang he would pull it and burn the documents. If not, the apes would undoubtedly hand the bag over to one of the elusive Russian spies giving them their orders.
“Don’t do that yet,” the girl said. “We’ve been hit before. They might just be scouts.”
“So what do we do?” Rutger asked in a panic. Tycho picked up his old friend’s walking stick and wielded it like a club. With his free hand he rapidly signed to the girl. Then the ape passed through the vines into the open to do battle with his vicious cousins. Rutger cowered as he heard the horn-like howl of a red ape, which was shortly followed by the swift tunk of wood across its skull. “What did he say?”
“Do you know what the most human virtue is?” she asked.
“The truth. It is the only one that can die with you.” The girl stepped out to fight alongside her teacher.