“Where were you?” she asked.
They were back in the kitchen. After Xian’s blunder, a ten-minute a break had been called. Mr. Thick stood over a BOI™, calmly watching as it sliced a flotilla-sized mushroom cap. He ignored her question.
“Where were you?” she asked, more sternly now. “I could’ve used some help out there.”
He looked at her for a moment before turning back to the BOI’s™ tireless labor. “Make sure the oxidized parts of the skin are scoured off. Otherwise, it will discolor the soup.” He was directing the machine. As if that could excuse him from having shirked his duties.
“The BOI™ knows perfectly well what needs to be done,” she put her hands on her hips, “Frankly Mr. Thick, I don’t believe that the BOI™ requires direction. What is needed, however,” here she paused for effect “is your due diligence.”
Finally he lifted his head. His eyes flickered with prideful light. Good: there was still some fire left in him.
She sighed, “you gave me fair warning earlier not to overreach my station. Not to attempt to put you in your place. Point taken. We are accomplices in all of this,” his hackles lowered. “And if you want to be in charge, then you’ve got to take charge! The night is far from over.”
Mr. Thick slowly looked around the room, as though to check that they were truly the only ones present. Then he grabbed her arm and led her out of the kitchen and down a back hallway. She protested briefly, but his arm held hers firmly, “I’ll answer your questions. But not here.”
He opened the seamless door to a cubicle in which the Vacubrums™ and Pakinis™ were kept and pulled her inside, shutting it behind them. In the half-light, she could see the whites of his eyes, glimmering like some bayed animal.
Here it was: would he finally profess his undying love for her? That was supposed to occur later that night. A profession of unflinching devotion at this juncture would be an egregious breach of the arc, one possibly unforgivable by the higher-ups. Though she knew it was not the time, she could feel her heart beating.
“I didn’t want to say anything out there,” he clenched her forearms. “Too many eyes and ears.”
He paused, searching her face. She was disturbed to find that she could not stand up beneath it. She dropped her eyes. “Well? If you’ve something to say, do so.”
“Mrs. Smith, I…,” here it came. “I think there’s something in the vents,” he immediately dropped her arms and crammed one fist into his mouth as though to stamp the flow of words.
Her stomach lurched, but not at his words, which had proved nothing more than the horrid confession of a paranoiac. She had halfway hoped that…. How vain she was, how simple. He had his fantasy: creatures swarming in the vents, but so did she. Mrs. Smith was dismayed at how easily she had fallen into role.
Be careful, she told herself. This could all just be some sport, a test of her abilities, and one that would later be critiqued and analyzed. She decided it would be far better if she played along. Mr. Thick was the cleverest of beasts, after all, “Well, that would just be impossible.”
“Of course, what could survive the insulation Barrier?” There was nothing that she could think of that would be able to handle the heat extremes of the counterflow-exchange…nothing natural in any case. “If you think it’s so dire, why don’t you tell someone?”
“Who?” Mr. Twists asked in despair. “Mr. Masterson? We’re the Help.” He was in a state, or seemingly so. “What if it’s Moshe’s descendents?” he whispered, his face curling into a smile, one he hid quickly beneath one trembling hand.
Well, that sunk it.
Mr. Thick—whoever he was—was a crypto-Heliophile: one who awaited the return of Moshe. Every primary student had been taught the story of the man who had led his flock deeper and deeper, beyond the limits of what the State had deemed inhabitable. Fleeing into the subterranean night, pursued by the agents of what would later be called the Riot Authority, not a one had returned. But there were some who believed, however improbably, that they would return to set the Citizenry free. She could almost see the fantasy play out in his mind, the deep dwellers climbing up the ducts in fearsomely painted pressure suits, steam-scalded hands wrapped around the pipes that conveyed the life-giving water between the buildings and the stone.
“You should listen to the walls,” he told her.
“Mr. Thick!” she was utterly exasperated. “Damn the walls! Right now I need to know whether or not I can rely on you.”
“Yes, of course, Mrs. Smith,” he bowed his head. “I’m sorry.” He chuckled. “Here I was admonishing you about stepping out of role….”
Mrs. Smith never needed to consult a time keeping device. Her internal atomic clock was always dead on and right now it told her that it was time to get back. They had been gone for exactly nine minutes. “Come on then, Mr. Thick,” she sighed heavily, “we’ve got work to do.”
“Of course we do, Mrs. Smith.” He agreed. He straightened his jacket. “Would you like to serve the meal of shall I?”
“Let’s stick with the script, shall we?”
The hard heels of their soles echoed through the corridor as they made their way back to the kitchen and when they arrived, they found Beatrice lingering over the cutting table just where Mr. Thick had been standing, watching the same slashing of the fungus. Mrs. Smith breathed sharply. Though she knew intellectually that it was nothing but a hologram, there were older parts of the mind that couldn’t help but respond to such phantasms.
“What are you doing here, my dear?” she inquired as gently as she could.
Beatrice looked at her blankly. A cordon of golden light led from the small of her back, through the swinging doors and out into the dining room. It hung shimmering in the air, a clean twine of light that writhed periodically and was only visible from certain angles. Mrs. Smith had never seen this before trick before. All at once, it pulled taut.
“Come, my dear,” Masterson’s deep voice rumbled from the other room. He was pulling on it. “Dinner is going to be served soon.”
Beatrice floated flickeringly away.
“How utterly unnerving!” Mrs. Smith said. But Mr. Thick didn’t hear her; he was standing next to the chief bulwark, running his fingers up and down it. He pressed one ear against it.
Suddenly he straightened, pushing his finger to his head. “Yes sir, right away.” The manservant turned to her: “Mr. Masterson’s waiting. We’d better hop to”
“Of course they are,” she snapped, but she was glad to see he was back on his feet again. She hoped it lasted.
The last thing she needed was for something else to break.