Another person was already at the dock. She joined him. They waited in a competition of silence until she could bear it no longer.
“They have a nerve.”
“I found its comportment to be above reproach.”
“So you were watching were you,” she tutted. “In any case, you misunderstood the nature of my disapproval. It is the entirety of its species that I object to.”
“I would suggest that they are not a species at all, but rather a caricature.”
“I’m sure you know what I mean.”
The Elepad arrived.
“If anything in this God-Forsaken land is objectionable, it would be the Heliophiles,” he said with obvious distaste.
“I’m sorry.” Mrs. Smith felt compelled to ask: “Are you in role?”
“Just making small talk.”
“Yes, but are you…. Is there something I should know about tonight?”
He swept his hand towards the waiting contrivance: “After you, Mrs. Smith.”
She had never seen the man before. He had not been at any of the prior Performances. His elusive manner more than unnerved her, but alas, she could not pacify herself; that wretched machine had taken her drops. She fiddled with her purse as the platform rose on its bubble-tracks.
The man, conversely, stood with his back to her, staring out into the diminishing hall. Nooks and passages for Masterson’s army of BOIs honeycombed the walls, which were laced with tread grooves.
Unable to resist, Mrs. Smith tottered forward just a touch to look over the Elepad’s edge. The distance was astonishing. She swooned. Light as a feather, the man’s hand took her elbow.
“It’s uncommon to find a place of such improbable vastness, is it not? For the unaccustomed, it must be disconcerting,” he smiled.
She shook his hand off and smoothed her frock. “You speak of my discomfort with the same admixture of dispassion and sadism that a lepidopterist adopts in the pinning of a moth to parchment.”
“You have me at a loss, Mrs. Smith.”
She snorted, “So you’ve never been to the Gardens, then? I thought as much.” She reached into her purse and grabbed her DigitEx™. She thought she’d done rather well, putting that upstart in his place.
“Ahem,” the man coughed. She ignored him. This time he spoke directly, “our host deplores the casual use of Digital Extensions. I thought you might know that by now. ” She looked at him venomously. “Neither would Mrs. Smith have been to the Gardens. Your allusion is beyond the ken.” He was suddenly very serious, “I would advise against trying to best me: you run the risk of slipping out of character. You are Mrs. Smith, after all.”
He was speaking beyond his ken, she thought, though she said nothing.
He relaxed once more. “If you require something to engage your attention, allow me to bring something to your attention. No doubt you’ve grown accustomed to the height by now. Look down. What do you see?”
Though his chastisement had rankled her, Mrs. Smith was naturally a very curious person. She didn’t want to admit it, but this time she was glad for his hand on her arm.
The stone floor far below did indeed have a design that she had failed to notice: Yggdrasil, the Nordic tree of the realms whose branches and roots were the interstices of worlds, stretched from the entrance to the dock. A familiar symbol of the Foundering Fathers, she wasn’t entirely surprised to see it there. Though how she had not seen it from the beginning puzzled her immensely. It must have been the lack of perspective.
But then a curious thing happened: as she rose, the image transformed. The leaves of the great tree melded together, becoming a head of hair. The huge boughs stretching to the walls became the harrows of time in a parchment white face. A closed mouth, a nose, two eyes, shut behind their lids took form where before the planes had nested amongst the leaves.
Yet, the farther she rose, the more horrific and slipshod the visage became. The mouth unhinged, until it was agape and agog. The eyes opened wider and wider, finally rolling back into their sockets. What had initially been an expression of euphoria in somnolence, became one of surprise and ultimately, dissolution and horror.
She gasped and stepped back.
“There now, you’ve seen it: the Oscillatrix. Mr. Masterson is the only one in possession of such a thing,” Mrs. Smith did not respond, so the man continued. “Gives new meaning to the Adjudicating Committee’s famous maxim about the abyss, doesn’t it?”
“And what is that?” She was embarrassed to have been so stricken by the sight, though anyone might have reacted similarly: it had been her own face, she had seen staring back at her.
“ ‘When you stare into the Abyss—’ ”
“—‘It stares into you.’ Yes, I know. It’s just a parlor trick.”
He laughed, “Now you’re getting into the spirit, Mrs. Smith! This immense concavity is my master’s equivalent of a parlor, so your comparison is more than apt.”
“Your master…. You’re Mr. Thick.”
“Of course. I shall be assisting you tonight, in service. Consider me your inestimable colleague.” The Elepad slowed to a stop, “I won’t ask you what you saw. Consider it professional courtesy.”
Professional blundering more like. Despite his efforts he was considerably less distinguished than his predecessor. She realized then that she missed him. The old Mr. Thick. She couldn’t help wondering what had happened to him.