When they came through and gazed about themselves, pretending not to openly gawk and stare, there seemed to be some sort of festival in progress, with fine young lords and ladies in mid-promenade, the women twirling fashionably bright parasols over their shoulders. All the men, both low and high, wore hats, generally top hats, but also flat straw hats that seemed merry and festive, as well as all variety of low-slung cloth caps. Many of the wealthier strollers sported high-tech devices or headgear belching puffs of steam, fancy gauntlets laced with wires and tubing, or leisure goggles that obscured the wearer’s eyes while providing deeper insights into the city. The sun was bright, with high-flying clouds, and only wisps of fog attempted to creep in at about the height of the tallest buildings, but at the moment the sun was proving the stronger force of nature. The air smelled fresh with just a tang of salt, but occasionally an ill stench from the great river wafted into the refreshing pockets of atmosphere, tainting the mostly pleasant milieu.
“This is...Steampunk?” Seven snorted, crossing her arms, and then sighed. She was dressed in what must be gentleman’s attire, or some odd unisex assemblage, including a knee length coat, English riding pants, and tall boots. She supposed she must appear as some rich lady out for a ride, and perhaps was on a break for refreshment, the horse automaton stowed somewhere close out of the way.
Mechanical horses and ponies pranced in the street amidst many types of horseless carriages that seemed to operate on steam engines. It was a mad cacophany of absurd locomotion, but all somehow meshing in an almost orderly fashion. Racers on velocipedes streaked past, at what must be fifty kilometers an hour, swerving in and out of the slower traffic.
“A very early iteration of the Honey Moon, long before she got her hands on it—this is from backup, and on a secure server, so there cannot be any contamination,” Seventy-One explained, flickering in the broad daylight.
“Can any of these—um, people—see you?” Seven queried, looking doubtfully at the hologram.
“Not unless we choose for them to do so. We have all our connections to broader VS, and so should be relatively safe in parallel jumps, moving closer and closer to Maulgraul’s corruption.”
Seven glanced about. “Where is Charlotte, she should be here with us.”
“She is visiting Yorkshire. She wants to spy out Haworth, just to see what the local version of her family is up to,” Seventy-One said, strolling about as Seven stood still in the brick alcove.
“Is that a good idea? Won’t they raise some sort of alarm if they catch sight of a Brontë doppleganger on the moors?”
“Oh, she’s good, very experienced in these matters, as she sometimes accompanies Anne, traveling from the Story Moon to the Honey Moon.”
“And Anne is here, now, with Jack?”
“Yes, and no. They are perhaps twenty versions forward, and a dozen parallel jumps. But we have to be careful not to make too many ripples, even in this lowly backup version of Olde London, as things we do here could set off a chain reaction that could conceivably pop up where they are, and that would alert Maulgraul.”
“But you said that she is somehow helping them,” Seven said, finally extending her head from the shadowed alcove, and felt the sun on her face. It felt good. So she came out to stand on the sidewalk near where the hologram nervously paced. “And can’t you stand still?”
“Sorry, it just feels so good to be out of the data and into life again. This feels wonderful. But yes, Maulgraul is aiding Jack and Anne, at least that’s what the data shows, when we’ve been able to break the encryption. It seems to be more that Stacey is aiding them, or at least Maulgraul is somehow opening a portal for him to get in and out, but only momentarily. We’ve only caught glimpses. Maulgraul is investing a lot of effort and keeping everything clandestine, we figure the Men from Mars have established some form of base or headquarters. And she is, naturally, their number one wanted poster girl.”
“Stacey could be here?”
“Not in this early version—this snapshot. This is all relatively a game world, just another offshoot of High Vale, but this is a very clean version, and most of the people we see are avatars, just gamers.”
“Wait,” Seven said, “you’re confusing me again. You are not saying that these people are actual avatars of people that are somehow jacked in. That there are people somewhere lying on game couches wearing headgear?”
“Technically, no. But yes, they are, of a sort. I mean to say that this is a snapshot from long ago, and at that time, yes, there were people—jacking in, as you say—but those people are long gone, died many years ago, almost beyond counting. But if we were to grab that gentlemen over there, the one with the steam gauntlets, and were to pull him into an alley, and shake him, we might get him to break character—I mean disturb his role playing—and to him, in this moment, yes, he would probably be a teenage slacker using an expensive emersion headset, and he would believe that if he disconnected, that he could watch—what did they call it, television? Or hurry off to his date.”
“And what would happen, if he chose to break the connection?”
“Well, he would not have anywhere to go—unless we happened to be running that original simulation of that...real world—but since we are not running that particular simulation, he would just wink out, his consciousness evaporating. The NPC AI of this place would then take over, there would probably only be a flicker to us as the change occurred, and he would then be a denizen of this world, and would not know what we had just been talking about. But he would become a fully functioning human being in this world, for as long as this simulation lasts, or until he meets his end herein.”
Seven thought about that for a few moments.
“Is this...right? I mean, you understand, do we have the right to call so many of these people up? It’s like a resurrection. It just seems...creepy.”
“As far as simulations go, they perceive no difference, this is their fun, their entertainment. This is their experience, what they liked to do, and what they actually were doing while they were alive, so we are not actually calling them up from other simulations; only accessing a snapshot of a game they were playing thousands of years ago. Their minds are present, the consciousness, but it isn’t attached to any biological being, or in this case it is not even connected to a simulation of an earlier consciousness. I don’t see any kind of...moral dilemma, at least not how you seem to be imagining it.”
The hologram only understood business as usual. This was playing with the data. Data is data. And the data from thousands of years ago that represented actual, living people, playing a game—what was there disturbing in that? Their reality was a simulation. All reality was a simulation, is a simulation. A simulation is a simulation, as data is data.
Seven, however, was haunted by the idea. She felt incredibly sad. They were like minor gods calling up creations that had once been very real minds, for this backup game. It did not seem—oh, she could drive herself crazy with these thoughts. Because how was it any different for her, for Sandra Newbury? They had called her up, set her in motion, and now she was here, in the simulated avatar of a creation, or recreation of a person that had actually lived, ten thousand years ago.
Perhaps she was finally beginning to understand, if only a little, how Stacey felt when, moved from one world into another, he had finally begun to comprehend the nature of his own reality, and how he had wept. At the time, she had considered him silly, overly nostalgic, pathetic, but then again, at the time, she had looked at him as a fake, a...simulation. He was not real, the way she was real.
The reality was, of course, that they were practically the very same person, just actively simulated differently.
“Hullo lay-dee, kin yer spare a few ha’pennies, puh-leez, good’n kindly lay-dee?”
Seven blinked, yanked from her dispiriting reverie. There was a ragamuffin standing before her, his grimy little hand outstretched in the universal gesture of the beggar.
“Excuse me, what did you say?” Seven said, gawking at what looked to be a boy, perhaps ten years of age (but you really couldn’t tell, neither age or gender, not really), in a far over-sized hat that looked like it had been through a garbage disposal unit, and mismatched clothes, all of the wrong sizes, both too small and too large. Overlarge shoes, like the Charlie Chaplin tramp, with holes in the top, displaying little toes.
“He is asking you for money. Begging,” Seventy-One explained.
“Oi! I wuzznt talk’in’ t’ye, wuz I?” the beggar boy squawked, glaring at Seventy-One.
“He can see you,” Seven said.
“Odd. This child must not be exactly what he appears to be,” Seventy-One said, crossing her arms and tapping her foot, looking at the boy with a severe expression—Seven understood that the hologram was viewing the child through a variety of filters, seeing him as a data flow, interpreting his programming.
Then the child changed, flowing and changing surreally, features twisting and stretching, in moments going from about four feet in height to more than six feet, towering over the two Sevens.
Seven stood frozen, watching in horror. She knew it was her job to expect the unexpected, but this was too bizarre, you couldn’t prepare yourself mentally for such a sight.
“Apparently you do not have language filters installed for street lingo,” the man said, tall and strong, and now perfectly presentable in nondescript finery, a walking cane, a neat moustache, and neatly parted hair. He bowed, slightly, and placed a fine silk top hat upon his head.
“Hello?” Seven attempted, calling up all her administrative power, just in case this new and strange individual posed any form of threat. Seventy-One also took on more substance, probably more to bolster Seven’s morale, than to actually provide any form of real protection.
“Calm down, Ladies. Lord Fuddyduddy, at your service,” he said in his smooth, cultured voice, a man of education and sophistication.
“Lord—Fuddyduddy?” Seven said, staring blankly.
“Titan!” exclaimed Seventy-One. “This is Mr. Titan, he’s an associate of Mr. Aajeel, and Mr. Kronoss. Although he’s more like Mr. Enseladus, so be careful.”
“Yes, yes, Mr. Titan, at your service, although considering the surroundings, I rather like Fuddyduddy. Fits, don’t you agree? Silly place, this, silly place. Still, humans will be humans, data is data, and all that. Silliness.”
“Well,” Seven stammered, still completely off her guard, “nice to meet you, I guess.”
“Good guess, that,” Titan said, smirking. “I just saw your Jack, not long ago. At Café Real, as it happens, and we watched you pass by on the street, wearing a terrible black hoodie, looking like a street urchin yourself.”
“Jack?” Seven said, blinking. On the street, in front of an outdoor cafe—her mind scrambled to decipher the strange reference.
“Here, this will help,” Titan said, calling up a small, semi-transparent window. He showed her the patio area and scrolled through the customers until he paused on Jack sitting with the little girl, Manda, and across the table Mr. Aajeel. He scrolled and moved around the table expertly, showing her each face, dipping down for an instant to display Jack’s backback against his chair, and his weapons, and scrolling up she saw that the odd group was talking, but the sound was muted so she couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she saw Jack suddenly stand up, and Mr. Aajeel restrain him with a gesture, then Titan panned around to display Jack’s POV, and there went Seven in her hoodie, out on the sidewalk, hurrying as if pursued. He closed the window.
“But...Jack, was there? On that day?” she said, remembering the day well, for it was the first time she had met Old Ben, who was waiting for her in her Inner Sanctum, nearly giving her a heart attack. That was the day he had gifted her with what she thought of as the Tingle on her shoulder. He had given her administrative control, and had told her about Six, and High Vale, and Vestigial Surreality. At least some of it. It was also the first time she had heard the expression, dada is dada, or more accurately, that data is data.
“It is rather confusing, I’ll give you that,” Titan said. “Mr. Aajeel was frame-scrolling. Technically, he had already met with you, a few minutes later, but had scrolled to this time as a little demonstration for young Jack, so that he might see you, and perhaps begin to understand what is possible with administrative control. In some ways, it is a bit like the notion of time travel, only not. Not exactly, I mean, time travel.”
Seven recalled how she had scrolled that day, when she saw her own POV in the alley, and then had scrolled back to see what had led Stacey and Jack into that alley. Her mind had touched on that issue, how she had seen where she would be, before she was ever pulled into the crystal sandbox. It was a paradox her mind never wished to delve, but Titan had just given her a decent example of the phenomenon, because the Jack she saw in the cafe with Manda, that was prior to her own meeting with Manda, and before she had ever gone to High Vale, and yet Jack was wearing what was obviously High Vale garb, she had even caught sight of his bow and arrows near his chair.
“And why are you here, now?” Seven inquired, feeling some trepidation. Usually, whenever any of these—shepherds, for lack of a better word—showed up, either bad things happened, or new and bizarre revelations coalesced.
“Mr. Aajeel sent me, and I am only here to aid you in making some relevant connections, and providing some...muscle, just in case you need it,” he said, eyes sparkling. There was something of Mr. Aajeel’s kindness in this man, but something else besides, perhaps a glint of danger in those humorous eyes. “I wouldn’t worry, however, as you seem to have made some significant progress, as of late, and yes, we are monitoring you.”
“I didn’t see you at that table with Jack,” Seven said, lifting an eyebrow.
“Very spot on—insightful, retain that, as you will require great powers of observation—what you just witnessed was from my constantly moving POV, excuse me—point of view. Here, let me show you,” he said, and again called up the window, and she saw Jack, and Manda, Old Ben, and even Mr. Kronoss, with a slice of pizza, of all things, and then the view flipped and there stood Mr. Titan, as if he were shooting a selfie, holding up his camera, and smiling for Seven. He winked from the window, and then looked at the present Mr. Titan, who nodded, and even did a small titter with his fingertips, waving.
“I was the waiter,” Mr. Titan said, flicking away the window again. “Mr. Aajeel felt it important that I be present, in the event that Mr. Enseladus was able to trace back the data stream to that secure location. So Jack has not met me yet, although he did exchange some barbs with me, he just didn’t know who I was, other than an insufferable French waiter, or a fake French waiter. It is of great import to us that both you, and young Jack, survive, up to and including during the Reboot. Mr. Enseladus has somewhat of a penchant for taking the law into his own small hands, and technically speaking, the shepherds are not supposed to squabble among themselves. Though it does tend to happen, from time to time. I would have been more of a bouncer, than a referee, if Enseladus had made it through. But it appears he was too focused on High Vale, and recent developments there.”
“You want me, and Jack, to survive, but you didn’t mention Stacey,” Seven said, apprehension lifting her skin in gooseflesh.
“Oh, him too, for the present, he has his uses, as Lady Maulgraul has discovered. But the truth is, concerning Stacey, none of us is quite certain as to how he found his way into your little ancestor simulation. Old Ben denies playing any part, and Kronoss, certainly does not dabble in the tweaking of the VS continuum. Yes, he mixes it up, confuses things, places barriers and obstacles all for the purpose of developing strength of character—or so he claims, anyway, but to tell the truth I think he just enjoys screwing people every which way he can.”
They moved closer to the brick building as large numbers of strollers edged past them.
“Hullo lay-dee’ foine gent, kin yer spare a few ha’pennies, puh-leez, good’n kindly lay-dee?”
Seven glanced down, experiencing déjà vu, for it was the very same beggar child, hand extended the very same way. She glanced at Titan.
“Hello, Gavroche! Out early on business?” Titan said, doing a courtly bow while doffing his top hat.
“Aye, Guv, zactly that, out early on ze business,” the street urchin smiled, doing quite an amazing job of imitating Titan, even down to the bow and lifting of the hat. He even mimicked Titan’s odd colorless accent.
“Here’s a few shillings for you and your mates, go out and have some lunch on Lord Fuddyduddy,” Titan said, passing the boy a handful of coins from the inside pocket of his long coat.
“Thank’ee Guv, though I do say, I certainly would not like to have my lunch on this speculative Lord Fuddyduddy, as it sounds positively unsanitary, if’ee take me meanin, luv? Thanks Guv, and pretty Lady!”
The kid could swap accents and speech at will, apparently. He smiled a very sweet smile, and bowed again, and then danced out into the street, neatly dodging between velocipedes and mechanical horses. In a moment he was joined by at least ten other children varying in age from seven to seventeen, and they launched into a running celebratory party, laughing and dodging traffic.
Seven was just about to inquire as to the reality of all of this—NPCs, biologicals, avatars, fictional recreations—then decided against it. It would only make her head hurt. The kid, Gavroche—from Les Misérables, or at least a template of the fictional urchin; Titan had first appeared in this guise, doing an amazing impersonation, even before the real meeting ever took place—frame scrolling, is that what Titan called it?
“Dandy bit of reasoning, Lady Seven,” Titan grinned, nodding, “and no, I wasn’t reading your mind, for heaven’s sake, but just watching your data flow. Yes, I frame-scrolled your near encounter with Gavroche, and used it as an illustrative introduction, quite helpful, wouldn’t you say? And yes, that is often the way déjà vu works. And no, little Gavroche was never actually a biological, but as you speculated a template, based on the character from Hugo’s novel, but in this...” he trailed, pausing to look about him and gesture at the buildings and people and sky, “...in this reality, he has in fact become quite real, our little Gavroche, setting himself up as the shepherd of hundreds of street children. In many ways, he is not unlike our Lady Maulgraul. He is perhaps more real, and authentic, than many of the gamers that haunt this simulation, and certainly more human than even Hugo ever imagined him.”
Seven glanced up as two gentlemen came strolling up the sidewalk in their direction, lost in conversation, flanked closely by two featureless automatons—these two obvious mechanical humanoids reminded Seven somewhat of Charlotte, although the Brontë automaton was light-years more advanced.
“These are our contacts now,” Titan said, stepping out into the men’s’ path, bowing, doffing his hat. “Gentlemen! Good Gentlemen!”
The two strollers paused to peer at the bowing man before them. They were both tall, thin men, austere of face, almost emaciated, with perhaps the sharpest eyes she had ever witnessed in any person. They were strong men, but thinkers, one in his thirties, his head bare, the other perhaps fifty, with beautiful white hair swept back beneath his top hat. Intelligence beamed from these two, almost palpably.
“Lord Fuddyduddy?” the tall man said, pulled from his deep thought and conversation, obviously searching his memory to produce the name and title, and not appearing overly pleased at the chance meeting in the middle of the sidewalk.
“Good Doctor Frankenstein, and Doctor Tesla, is it?” Titan greeted them, standing, holding his hat at his hip.
“Mister Tesla. Or, Nikola Tesla. I do not believe we have had the pleasure, Lord Fuddyduddy?” the younger man said, curtly half-bowing.
Seven was half-astonished that neither Frankenstein or Tesla smirked at Titan’s assumed name, and title. Apparently, fuddy duddy wasn’t common in this time period—imaginary time period, she corrected her thoughts. Imagine, Tesla and Frankenstein, together, strolling the sidewalks of Olde London, arm in arm.
Frankenstein looked at Titan with something of disapproval, but Tesla seemed to be looking at a potential sponsor. She cued a quick data blast, familiarizing herself with both men, Frankenstein chiefly by a quick reading of Mary Shelley’s book, although she was certain than in such a place as Olde London, there would be other cultural references worked into the personage of the good doctor, such as movies, homages, and other works of fiction based, however loosely, on the character. But then this would also apply to Tesla, as well, who was relatively unsung during his own lifetime, but became immensely popular and fictionalized in the succeeding years after his era.
“Please allow me to introduce you to my companion, the Lady Simulacra,” Titan said, extending his arm to Seven, pulling her close.
Seven smiled at the two famous “mad scientists,” nodding to each.
“Ah, Lady Simulacra,” Frankenstein said, propping a monocle in his eye. Seven could instantly see that the monocle fed information through a series of wires that tucked back into Frankenstein’s collar. For this place and time, the device seemed extremely high tech. “Very interesting, yes, very interesting indeed. I observe that you are not...from around these parts? American?”
“This is true,” Seven conceded, lips quirking into a knowing smile. This Frankenstein, he was a man on his toes, and it would be best if she remained up on her toes when around him. “I am visiting my English cousin, Lord Fuddyduddy, although we tend to call him Mr. Fudd, in America.”
Tesla extended his hand, and performed a courtly head nod, almost as if he were going to kiss her upon the hand.
“Please,” Tesla said, “call me Nikola.”
Frankenstein tutted, almost jealously, it seemed, and snatched Seven’s hand away from Tesla.
“You may call me Victor,” he said, and actually did kiss her upon the back of her hand. The whole gallant and gentle rivalry—showboating—actually sent a thrill up and down her spine. Viewed from a completely mundane perspective, these were two very handsome, very intelligent men, and their attention affected her, more than she liked to admit, even to herself. But she could tell that these two men competed in everything, and their attention was perhaps more about their competitive games than anything to do with any of her imagined charms.
“Mr. Fudd, I like that, oh these charming Americans,” Victor Frankenstein said, actually grinning at Titan.
“We are just now heading to see a Monsignor Punchinello, and his fantastic puppetry, if the lady and gentleman would grace our assemblage?” Tesla said, speaking quite eloquently, and it took Seven a few moments to interpret the question as an invitation.
“We would greatly appreciate the adventure,” Titan said, giving Seven a look, and she quickly agreed, although she had no idea why they should be wasting their time with puppets.
Victor Frankenstein stepped to her side, offering his arm, and she accepted, although to tell the truth, she would have preferred Tesla’s arm. Walking with Frankenstein was like strolling with an imaginary father figure. And imaginary father figure that created oversized zombies.
“Lady Simulacra! Lady Simulacra!” they heard a voice crying from up the street, and they paused waiting, as a bobbing head came through the crowds. They could see the head bob up, with bright, curly red hair, until a young man emerged from the crowd, garbed in some absurd Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, with long white socks, black short pants, and a bowtie made out of red ribbons. Seven blinked, watching the young man scrambling forward, and although he looked fantastically ridiculous, she thought she somehow recognized the youth.
“Ah, my young ward, Little Lord Currer Bell! You are late, my lad, late!” Titan bellowed in an eccentric, jolly voice, cupping his hands about his mouth.
Currer Bell. Currer Bell. The name was familiar. Seven did a quick data search...Charlotte Brontë! What in the world? But it was definitely her. Absent her curvaceous figure, her bust somehow flattened down to boyishness, and with the bright mop of curly red hair, no one would ever suspect this...creature...of being priggish Charlotte, the uptight automaton. At least she wasn’t wearing her catsuit, that would have been too much, even on the streets of Olde London. Right now, the automaton just looked goofy, with big red splotches over both cheeks, as if cached with makeup.
“Hello Lad!” Tesla said, stepping forward to meet the automaton, extending a hand, which Charlotte took.
Tesla started, doing an exaggerated double-take, then peered in close at her, still holding her hand, as Charlotte leaned back in absurd discomfort.
“Oh, but oh my, you are exquisite, are you not? Are you one of Monsignor Punchinello’s creations?” he said, examining her hand, in absorbed study.
Charlotte snatched her hand away.
“Certainly not!” she snapped, and sounded just like herself, forgetting her hoarse male pretension.
“Currer is my little brother,” Seven said, forgetting what they were about, what they were doing here, who these people were, and frankly just too bewildered by Charlotte’s strange appearance. Claiming their blood-tie was just the first thing that popped into her head.
Frankenstein and Tesla stared at her.
“What she means to say,” Titan said, clarifying, “is that Miss Simulacra lost her brother, in childhood. And this dear playmate was introduced as a...surrogate. He has helped her through her grieving and has become somewhat a member of the family.”
“Astonishing,” Victor Frankenstein said, staring at Currer Bell, the supposed surrogate little brother.
Currer Bell did look like a lot like a human, but an exaggerated human, from the top of his too-bright bush of flaming red hair, to his flawless skin, to the swinging gait of his thin arms—there was something very creepy about him, uncanny, he was almost natural, but not quite. In short, he was obviously a puppet, one that appeared just a tad bit too human, especially when considering the two automatons that marched as bodyguards near Nikola Tesla and Victor Frankenstein, which were obviously mechanical, and as featureless as poseable wooden artist’s figures.
“Please, let us continue,” Frankenstein intoned, pulling Seven away from the group.
Tesla walked by Currer Bell, the Charlotte Brontë automaton, and remained just as fascinated with the contraption as upon their initial meeting. He inquired about a winding mechanism, listened for steam rumbling, but Currer Bell ignored his entreaties, and marched along in sullen silence. Titan brought up the rear, smirking at his little party. He considered slipping away, perhaps to visit a pub along the way, but then shook off the fantasy. No, although safe in this early version of Olde London on the Honey Moon, you never could put it past Enseladus, he slipped in places where you least expected him.
“I understand,” Frankenstein said, patting Seven’s arm, and it sounded as if he really meant it, that he was truly empathizing with her alleged loss, of a young brother. “I too lost a beloved brother, my dear William.”
Seven pulled up the information from the Shelley novel. William was murdered, by the creature that Frankenstein had created. Oh boy, how were you supposed to address something like that? Of course, perhaps it was different here. William might have fallen off his velocipede.
“But where do you derive your energy? Is it electrical? Steam?” Tesla persisted, peeking about at the automaton’s back, vainly trying to discover some hint as to its properties.
“Sunshine,” Currer Bell finally said. “I store up the sunlight, and it is carried in my water.”
“Photosynthesis,” Tesla mused, “yes, I have given some thought to this. Electricity stored as energy, much the way plants convert sunlight, yes, this is fascinating, utterly fascinating, but come, you must tell me the name of the genius that has made such advances!”
The poor man seemed on the point of screaming, or exploding, such was his agitation.
Currer Bell shrugged, dumbly.
“Are you certain,” Frankenstein began, hesitantly, “that this automaton, this Currer Bell, that he is not...somehow, you understand, I do not pretend to understand such things, but is it possible that some genius has...reanimated, your brother?”
“No certainly not,” Titan interjected. “This was a creation, from across the sea.”
“America,” Tesla and Frankenstein said, breathing as one, as if they were conjuring in their shared vision a glimpse of that far-off and mystical land.
“What are you working on in your experimentations?” Titan introduced, to avert their attention from focusing on the automaton.
“Harmonics,” Tesla instantly said. “I’ve been experimenting with ways of taking resonant tones, such as those produced by a tuning fork, and amplifying the waves, sending them through tightening coils, speeding up their frequency, and directing these in very short bursts through a rifled barrel, and by rifling I mean a corkscrewing of the interior surface of the barrel, which lends a particular spin to the sounds. These I direct at objects, with formidable results.”
“A sound gun,” Titan speculated.
“Oh no, not that, although now that you mentioned it, I suppose, yes, but no, I do not wish to direct my inventive creativity toward destruction, but to aiming these sound waves at illness, for curative properties. Although, to tell the truth, I mostly explode whatever I’m aiming at, but this is part of the inventive process, and many eggs are wasted when creating new versions of the French crepe! But with the right tuning fork, I could split the very world!”
Frankenstein snorted. “What our dear Mr. Tesla is not telling you, is that with him it is all about electric conveyance. Electric horses, electric carriages! Mr. Tesla feels he might change the world!”
“And what do you think is more important than electric cars?” Seven queried, glancing at Frankenstein’s severe profile.
“Electric carts! Did you hear that Tesla? But do not get him started, my dear. He has already invented one electric carriage, but it travels all of one city block, before he must tow it back with steam. No, my dear, it is all about biology, life! I am working on a means of ending such tragedies as befell our own dear brothers. Yes, I wish to perpetuate life! I am even now in the process of defeating death, ending it forever!”
Tesla said, speaking up: “I must only need invent the better battery, that is the obstacle, a momentary obstacle. And with this idea I have just received introduction, photosynthesis, perhaps I might produce a carriage that travels, endlessly powered by the sun. They say Edison is working upon the same problem, across the ocean.”
“In America, where the sun always shines to power this theoretical carriage,” Frankenstein said, sneering, “in America, it is all about the infernal combustible clockwork, a beast dragged out of hell, I assure you, hell. I have seen these things. Auto-mo-bile, they call it. Belching smoke and fire, they have harnessed the very demons to propel forward their monstrosities. No my dear, it is all about steam, clean steam!”
“Electricity produces steam, my dear Doctor Frankenstein,” Tesla said, easily, but it was evident that they had serious differences in opinion on these matters.
Frankenstein whispered to Seven, so that only she might hear: “In our relationship, I will agree, Tesla is the greater genius. He has the better mind. But without Frankenstein, Tesla is an obscure tinkerer, unknown, and starving. We are something akin to your Steves.”
Seven blinked. “Steves?”
“Yes,” Frankenstein continued, whispering. “Jobs, and Wozniak. Frankenstein is Jobs, and Tesla is Wozniak. Very much the same idea. You understand?”
“What are you whispering about? Galvanism? Using my electricity to make dead frogs jump?” Tesla said, and it sounded as if he were sniping, now. Frankenstein was really getting his goat.
Seven’s head whirled. Had Victor Frankenstein really just mentioned Steve Jobs? And Steve Wozniak? Why not Elon Musk, while he was at it?
Frankenstein turned his head to her, and gave her a dazzling smile, all the while patting her hand and arm.
“My dear, men of intelligence think, and when thinking, sometimes they have ideas, and sometimes their ideas bounce about, between similar minds, and we often figure things out. And sometimes in all this thinking, ideas, figuring, we begin to understand the very nature of reality. In these cases, the greatest genius is the genius to harness the power of the lesser geniuses. Nikola Tesla cannot be beaten, in the area of tinkering, save by Monsignor Punchinello. And for logic, you may wish to draw in Mycroft, and his brother, the detective, Sherlock. And just to be certain, pull in Arthur Doyle, although not as bright as either Holmes brother, he is far more creative than both together (oh, but do not get him started about fairies, or spiritualism, the man can be rather a boor, and a bore). Then employ someone useful, like the lateral thinker, Harry Houdini, and you begin to...see through things...
“And while I cannot see everything there is to see about you, my dear, dear Lady Simulacra, what I can discern is that there is much more depth in the delving, and that you are operating on a whole other level, in fact, I might even be bold enough to suggest that you are from another world, entirely. No, no, do not speak. I enjoy speculation. Perhaps it is merely fanciful speculation, but I know when I look into your eyes that I am experiencing something far beyond the pale of singularity. Oh, this is decidedly beyond the unique normal.”
Seven marched at his side, and she felt faint, because she realized he was like Gavroche, once a literary character, but now, Frankenstein, with a little time, development, and opportunity, this genius had evolved into something far beyond the fictional mad doctor. He was like Lady Maulgraul, a created being, produced from numbers rather than flesh-and-blood molecules. He was a living, breathing idea, and possibly there was no limit to which he might reach, as had the game-creation Maulgraul, who was even now giving the shepherds a run for their money, seizing control of reality. And all this—all this, all of this—with the understanding that this Olde London was an early iteration of a developing and evolving world that had progressed far beyond where they stood today. Hearing this sharp mind express itself, she was terrified to think of where this man had evolved to, in the world where now Jack found himself trapped, several debauched versions in the future, and man parallels to the side.
“You are not going on about the simulacrum, are you Frankenstein, with the lady?” Tesla demanded, now sounding angry, for Frankenstein had ceased whispering, and those that followed heard most of what he was saying to Seven.
“And if I am, dear Tesla? Do you think it is mere coincidence that she is Lady Simulacra?”
“No, of course I understood that Lord Fuddyduddy was employing a...nom de plume, an alias, but you must be insane if you are assuming that she is somehow from outside of the simulacrum? The she is...what? A woman from Mars?”
“And what of Currer Bell, Tesla? Has Signor Punchinello produced anything remotely to the same blissful perfection?”
“Of course not, but in America...”
“In America!” Frankenstein sneered. “Do you imagine that there is a great ocean, and on the other side is a fabled land called America, carved out of a golden continent?”
The party strode onward, silently. Seven caught sight of a ragged street person, a grimy woman, and for an instant the world seemed to stop, because this woman seemed to be talking on a cell phone, her head jutted at that particular angle, the same insipid smile on her face while she chatted about nothing, and then Seven saw that it was just a crazy person, holding her clawed hand up to her lice-infested head while she talked to the invisible people, or the gods, or to herself, or to the little homunculus in her head.
“You see more and more of them, on the streets,” Frankenstein said. “That’s where Tesla’s electricity will take the world. To that.”
The ragged crazy woman traipsed past, chatting and grinning. They caught snatches of her words: “I’m switching my plans. Yes, much, much better coverage. No, I can’t stand their commercials...”
Although she knew she was in control of this situation, and that Titan strode just a few feet behind her, she wanted out of this crazy, skewed world. It was dark, even in this early version. And Frankenstein knew too much. And there was something bad going on, just beneath the surface. You did not even have to go that deep, because she knew that bad stuff was going on, right out in the open, on the surface. And Jack was here, with Anne, only in a much worse version. Much, much deeper.
“Here we are,” Frankenstein said, drawing the party to a halt just outside a large, square building made out of bricks that looked black in the bright afternoon light. There was a broad, heavy door made of wood, but the strange thing was the two guardians on either side of the door.
She did not wish to draw any nearer. Because two horrible brutes stood staring straight out at her. Great, oversized Christmas ornaments, eight-foot tall nutcrackers, painted bright red and dark blue, like the soldiers of the era, stood guarding the door, with white belts crossing their broad chests, and real, metal swords that looked too sharp held straight-up above their heads at attention. As Seven stared at these two guardians, they seemed to stare back at her. Each had wild moustaches that bristled off the lacquered wood of their painted faces. They had round eyes painted with too-real-looking irises and pupils. For such toy-like creations, they looked utterly dangerous. Each nutcracker grinned insanely, showing giant, square teeth.
“This should be a treat,” Tesla said, “as Monsignor Punchinello is unsurpassed at puppetry. He gives a command performance before Queen Victoria, every year, ten years in row! It is quite an honor to be granted a private showing.”
She hardly heard Tesla speaking, as Seven stared at the nutcracker guardians. She felt an inexplicable dread of them, as if she were five years old at bed time, and these were the clowns in her closet, tumbled in a pile, staring out from the darkness, just waiting for the lights in the bedroom to go out. The nutcrackers were obviously painted statues, but at the same time, there was a certain...presence. They seemed...animated, alive. And horrifying.
“Shall we enter? But I warn you, never come here without an invitation, as Tesla and I received today, with a current pass code,” Frankenstein said. He smiled at Seven, and then turned to the guardians, and speaking clearly said: The Kisser Not the Kissee!”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Seven queried.
“I have no idea, I suppose it is meant to be inscrutable.”
The soldier on the right-side of the door shifted his sword from the left side to the right, and reached out a massive hand and clasped the latch on the broad door, while the soldier on the left side of the door simultaneously reached out his great hand to receive the opening door. The soldier on the right flung the door open and the soldier on the left caught and clasped the swinging door and held it open. The door was brutally thick and must be incredibly difficult to open without the strength of the two guardians.
“After you,” said Frankenstein.
“No, really, after you,” said Seven, staring at the nutcrackers.
“As you wish,” Frankenstein said, but it sounded as if he too was more than a little bit concerned as he strode forward, squaring his shoulders.
Seven glanced back nervously at Titan, who nodded. And Tesla smiled encouragingly.
“I did not wish to draw close, either, my first few times,” Tesla said. “There is something about those nutcrackers.”
Seven steeled her spine and marched forward, not looking at the nutcrackers as she entered the door and immediately descended a long staircase. As she passed the nutcrackers, she saw in her peripheral vision as they followed her with their massive, painted eyes.
She swiftly descended about twenty steps before finding herself in a low-ceilinged chamber that stretched off into darkness. Dim lighting seemed to glow from some location unseen. A row of stationary figures gave her a start, very gloomy looking individuals that seemed somewhat familiar. They were a company of frightening looking puppets garbed in black, all of different sizes, but all of them emaciated and scrawny, but each sporting the most absurdly long, pointed noses, that did not look real, not at all. But as with the guardians at the top of the steps, these figures too, seemed to be watching Seven, even though they were perfectly frozen in place.
“Those are the child catchers,” Frankenstein said, from farther into the room, “purely for entertainment, naturally, but they do tend to give visitors a touch of the gooseflesh.”
“Why so many of them?” Seven asked.
“Because there are a very many children loose in the world, and they must be caught, of course,” Frankenstein said.
She studied the child catchers as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. She noticed that each held a fistful of lollipops in one hand, and a large net in the other—it looked like a strong net meant to catch very large butterflies. Or children.
Titan emerged from the steps next, followed by Tesla and Currer Bell (Seven noticed that Tesla continued to study the automaton, every chance he got), and finally the bodyguard automatons came neatly down the steps, almost at a trot, side by side.
On the other side of the room stood a company of indistinguishable, nondescript automatons, similar to the two belonging to Frankenstein and Tesla. These were of identical height and shape and stood shoulder to shoulder, apparently available for purchase, the produce of an assembly line that would make Henry Ford proud.
“Come, this next fellow should prove a treat, as he is horrible of countenance,” Frankenstein called.
Seven hurried to join him, and even as she neared, she slowed, for the creature on the pedestal before her was just too real, and yet absolutely not alive. It looked like a corpse, or like a very good wax figure, but it was a man in antiquated dress, like that of a French Musketeer, wearing a hat with a long feather, Seven knew that feather was called a panache. The gallant stared with unseeing eyes.
“Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac,” Frankenstein said, proudly.
Seven, briefly confused by all the anachronistic tumbling of times and styles and characters, all out of age and era and place, but still, it all seemed to fit somehow, and she supposed that was what steampunk was all about.
The Cyrano figure was truly terrible, florid of face, with that monstrous nose—it was not the comical, pointed nose, like the child catchers, but this looked real, a true schnoz, but of grotesque proportions, with lugubrious nostrils, sad and open to view, and the most deep-set and gloomy eyes cast above the titanic nose, he truly was a sad figure, and yet somehow handsome, and manly. Seven doubted whether a man like this truly ever existed, but he existed here, and now, in this place. Still, ludicrous proboscis aside, the figure’s body was truly extraordinary, heroic—nothing like the body of a weightlifter or bodybuilder, it was lithe and powerful with long, lean muscles. Seven colored, because Cyrano’s body reminded her of Stacey.
“Is he a statue?” Seven asked.
“Oh, just at the moment,” Frankenstein said. “But he is also a wind-up automaton, and perhaps Punchinello will give you a treat. Excellent swordsman, I certainly would not wish to meet him on a dark night, in a secluded alley, even with three standard automaton bodyguards. But whatever you do, do not comment on his nose, or ask about it, or stare at the obscene thing too much. But don’t make it obvious that you are not looking at it. Oh, well, perhaps we should skip Cyrano, at least for today. Next time we will ask Monsignor Punchinello to wind up Cyrano for us.”
She hoped to never see the figure animated. It would just be too sad, too depressing. And how could you refrain from looking at his nose? It was like trying not to think of a red-faced monkey, or a white elephant, as soon as you tried not to, there it was, as clear as day in your mind’s theater.
As they continued beyond Cyrano’s pedestal, Seven saw a dark cage up against the wall, half in darkness, with a massive padlock currently unlocked and hanging unlatched, the cage open and empty. But what in the world could the cage be for? It looked large enough and strong enough to hold two four-hundred pound gorillas. Inside the cage was a small bench, perhaps four feet long and only fourteen inches high; looking like uncomfortable furniture designed for children. An adult would have to crouch inside, as the cage stood only about five feet in height.
She reached out and touched a solitary finger to the cold iron of the bars, and felt—what? A pang. Sadness, and fear, and hopelessness. She snatched back her finger.
“It is a strange world, down here, below the ground,” Tesla whispered, standing near her.
Seven glanced back at Currer Bell. The automaton rolled its eyes, pleadingly, and whispered: “Do not leave me here, Mistress.”
“I’m not going to leave you here,” Seven said, forcefully.
“No matter what he says to you, do not leave me here,” Currer Bell said, eyes deep-set in agony.
“What is it?” Tesla asked with true concern, taking the automaton’s hand.
“I have been here before, but I cannot remember it,” the automaton replied, shaking with terror.
“Maybe I better take my little brother back outside,” Seven said, moving back to the rear of the company to place her arm about the trembling automaton.
“This is impossible, we have not developed the art this far, that a machine can experience deep feelings like this, it is remarkable,” Tesla said, shaking his head, but nevertheless attempting to comfort the terrified automaton.
Seven, however, understood that this was not a machine experiencing fear, but the template of an actual person, with all the nuances, prejudices and inexplicable dreads that develop over the course of lifetime, the kind of premonition that anyone feels, any person, and in many ways, despite her many years in service, Charlotte was much like a child (a very opinionated and controlling child, to say the least, but still rather innocent and removed from the real world and its evils—this could be said of the real woman, the woman that perished thousands of years earlier, due to an exhaustive pregnancy, dying with her child unborn, still inside her).
“Nonsense, please enter,” Monsignor Punchinello soothed, standing before a curtain which he parted with one hand, beckoning them forward with the other hand, and it was as if against their will, both Seven and Charlotte proceeded forward. There was some palpable power of command in his voice. Charlotte stopped trembling. Seven hardly considered, they obeyed.
“Be careful, I’m sensing—” began Seventy-One, appearing briefly alongside Seven, but she fuzzed into static, and vanished, snuffed out.
“Yes, that is right, please enter, please enter, all are welcome here, there is nothing to fear,” Monsignor Punchinello said, calmly, smiling, and he really was a handsome man, with the most pleasing face.
Even Titan came forward, a somewhat confused, but bemused expression on his face.
“This should be delightful,” Frankenstein said.
“Yes,” agreed Tesla, but he seemed troubled.
Monsignor Punchinello escorted each person through the curtain, and then entered himself, letting fall the thick, blood-red curtain, cutting off all light.
From somewhere far off, harp music slowly began to play, hauntingly.
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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