Mrs. Smith would have argued with Moshe himself if he had accused her of not earning her keep that interminable evening.
The guests confabulated grandly around the grand table. Wild banter leapt from bibulous lips, like dolphins in the ancient, endless sea, before plunging into reverent silence when the mood took one of their number into passionate, grandiloquent monologue.
Or at least that’s what it said in the script.
In fact, except for the momentary disappearance of Beatrice, everything had gone off more or less without a hitch. The only problem Mrs. Smith could see—beside the power going out again—was Mr. Thick himself: he appeared to have lost his nerve. It was an almost imperceptible change and she wondered if she might not be over interpreting it, but the slight dew on his upper lip, the single hair out of place…she had learned through experience that the small things told one the most. She didn’t mind if his bravado had abandoned him. Truthfully, she had found it tiresome. But she did need him to be flash. Success hinged on their absolute professionalism.
Which reminded her: she would need her Üdrops before the night was out. Could it be that Masterson did not worry at all about Cave Fever? She had heard that those in the Upper Levels didn’t believe it to be a malady as such. Rather—in a brilliant display of circular reasoning—they believed that victims of the deep illness were in fact succumbing to some primordial state, the very existence of which was evidence enough of their latent primitivism. In short, if one were stricken with Cave Fever, it was because they deserved it, on account of their inherently low state. Mrs. Smith put no stock in this argument, of course. If there was one thing one could be sure of, it was that Citizens of the so-called Gilded Flats were dreadfully out of touch with everything that was happening around them.
Dr. Hassan Shinseki, the famous geo-paleontologist, was beginning his most famous exhortation. Now was as good a time as any to make her rounds. In truth, she loved his delivery. His voice was very pleasant, almost Orphic, and extremely easy to work to. She felt as though she were dancing as she topped the guests’ glasses with the wine.
Dr. Shinseki: “To think that life on the surface has been anything other than a gross deviation from evolution is ridiculous at best.”
“And how is that Dr. Shinseki?” Mr. Badubim, who was the most vociferous opponent of the subterranean gambit, was his foil.
“A simple algorithm of thought should suffice,” Dr. Shinseki stood up. “Most of us marvel at creatures that can survive without oxygen, do we not?”
“Of course,” Mr. Badubim sniffed.
“But, from an evolutionary standpoint, we are the relative newcomers on the block.”
“Yes, yes, that is well established,” Mrs. Xian agreed. “A flash in the pan.”
“And let us remember that as the atmosphere was forming, there was, initially very little oxygen.”
“That is well-recorded,” Mr. Masterson nodded, speaking for the first time. Beautiful Beatrice fawned over his every words. She couldn’t stop fawning.
“When photosynthetic organisms developed 2.8 billion years ago, they’re by-product was….”
“Oxygen,” Mr. Masterson liked providing the answers to the difficult questions. Especially if they entailed but one word.
“Precisely. In point of fact oxygen is a byproduct—from a scientific standpoint—of an incredible process. For us, what could be better? We live because of it, we breath it, we revel in it. Nothing is more fundamental to life as we know it than oxygen. Except…,” Dr. Shinseki paused. “ that isn’t true. Because for anaerobes oxygen is anathema.”
“Your Grecian play on words is amusing,” Mrs. Blum chimed in.
“But apt, I hope, as this dialectic is decidedly Socratic.”
A titter rippled around the oval table in deference to this clever quip.
“Oxygen was abundant, more so than ever before or ever again,” Shinseki took a long draw from his wine glass. Mrs. Smith admired his method. “Anaerobes, which, before the development of the atmosphere as we know it today, had laid claim to the surface, now had to find new domains in which to survive. Three places primarily: the deep sub-surface, in oxygen-depleted waters, and within us.”
“Excuse me?” Mrs. Blum was not big on matters scientific.
“He means within our digestive tracts,” Mr. Blum said, presumably as an aside but loud enough for all to hear. “Where they do the dirty work.”
“Oh get to the point already, Shinseki!” growled Badubim, “You’re paleontological prevarication is boring the ladies.”
“On the contrary,” Mrs. Blum said. “I find this discussion to be highly informative.”
“Thank you, my dear.” Shinseki bowed in her direction. “Might I say, at the risk of seeming presumptive, Monsieur Blum, that your wife has a most discerning intellect,” the other nodded graciously, though the flattery had made him a bit uncomfortable. In a flash, Shinseki was back on his soapbox. “What I’m getting at, my dear Badubim is quite simple. Science supports what the Church of the Subgenesis has been espousing all along: that oxygen-breathers are the producers of a ‘pollutant’ that the pure life forms, thermophilic anaerobes—the very creatures that now sustain our life, and (State willing) will sustain us unto perpetuity—find intractable.”
Badubim snorted: “The Cult of the Worm. A bunch of raving lunatics.”
“Yes, but how do they sustain our life?” Mrs. Blum asked. “Such a statement seems a bit bold.”
“Well, what about our digestive tracts, my darling, as the gentleman has already described,” Mr. Blum was used to helping her connect the dots. “There are quite simply millions of those little critters within us.” He laughed, trying to charm his wife, but she only had eyes for the orator.
“But that’s not all. One word: Lithotrophs,” here was Shinseki’s pitch, the pitch that had cemented his name in the annals of future histories. “I am pleased to announce that Sakura Desert Industries is at this moment in the process of developing microbial rock-eaters that, when augmented by nano-technology will have the capacity to literally carve out our future communities!”
“These are exciting yet strange ideas,” Mrs. Blum said. She batted her eyes.
Mrs. Smith found it to be a bit of overkill. The seeds of Blum and Shinseki’s relationship would be better softened by a more subtle portrayal. Under such ham-fisted delivery, they could not germinate naturally.
“But how can you say that they are the pure form?” Mr. Badubim would not be ignored.
“I confess that is a term I have borrowed from the Church, the Church that you profess to so despise.”
Mr. Badubim scoffed: “Perhaps, as a man of science, you should refrain from making such judgments.”
“On the contrary,” Mr. Masterson interjected. The script was limited intentionally regarding his participation as his capacity for memorization was infamously poor. Thus any line he gave had been carefully crafted to give the impression of laconic wisdom. “If we are to call ourselves the Foundering Fathers—“
“And mothers,” Mrs. Xian added.
“We must, be prepared to accept all the challenges of humanity, with regards to both reason and belief.”
“Emotion,” Mrs. Blum added.
At the last, the conversation ground to a halt.
Here, finally, was Mr. Artaud’s foolish entre into the scene. He smiled congenially: “Art should also be considered in this discussion. Shouldn’t it?”
Masterson stood to his feet, slamming his fists on the table: “The only art we need consider is that of the Artifice of Truth!”
“I think that what Mr. Masterson is trying to say at is that our new society won’t need a—how should I say it—three-dimensional image of itself,” Mrs. Xian explained. “What it will need are creatives that will aid the State. Take for example your photographs, Mr. Sander.” She pointed at Artaud.
“I’m sorry, are you talking about me?” Artaud said with genuine surprise.
“Yes. Take for example the photographs of insert present artist’s name here.”
Mr. Masterson’s face passed prismatically through the entire spectrum until finally it arrived at purple. Like a creature from myth, it landed there and promptly turned to stone. Silence, that reliable pall, fell once again. Only Beatrice continued to stir her drink and look at her father dotingly. She was apparently on a thirty-second rotation.
“My name is August Artaud and I am a Thespian,” Oh such pride! Mrs. Smith envied him this, whether it was abetted by drink or not.
Mrs. Xian’s face blanched. No doubt some intern charged with feeding her her lines via D.I.S. was now sitting in a pile of his own fecal matter, as realization of this rookie blunder sank in. Poor thing, Xian was supposed to be an ice queen. Now, alas, she had given herself away: just another lazy prima donna, who couldn’t be bothered to learn her lines.