Mrs. Smith busied herself with a few things before returning to the dining room. The event required a woman’s touch, despite whatever Mr. Thick, or Masterson and his army of robots might believe.
Artaud had not yet returned, nor had Xian. The other guests milled about, somewhat at a loss for purpose without the regiment of the Performance to guide them.
Masterson pulled a chair and drew his phantom daughter towards it. She alighted and in doing so, resumed the behavior cycle that prevailed when she was seated. Blink, gesture, fawn. Blink, gesture, fawn. Her leash disappeared as soon as she had sat down.
He waved Mrs. Smith over.
“I’ll need some brandy,” he said.
“Something to take the edge off, you understand.”
She nodded again. “Of course, sir.” Normally serving Masterson was Mr. Thick’s purview, and Mrs. Smith wondered why she was doing so until she noticed that the double doors leading to the Elepad landing were open. Thick must be out there, apprising one or more of the guests of the mysteries of the Oscillatrix.
Sure enough, Artaud soon tottered in drunkenly, one hand over his mouth, the other buttressed against the manservant’s shoulder.
“What in the dev–what in State’s name was that?” Spittle dangled from the artist’s palm. Where before had been the pink flush of youth now was only green.
Mr. Thick was reciting his oft-rehearsed paean to the psychotropic machine loudly and for his patron’s benefit: “You ought to consider yourself one of the blessed,” he said. “Mr. Masterson is the only one in possession of such a thing. Gives new meaning to the Adjudicating Committee’s famous maxim about the abyss, does it not?”
“Phhhtttt,” Artaud rejoined clearing his lips of globules. “Give the bloated oratory a rest, Thick. My head is pounding enough as it is.”
Mrs. Smith smiled into her hand. Hadn’t it been but minutes before that Thick, that mealy-mouthed simpleton, had been hanging by his fingernails to a shred of sanity? She was glad she wasn’t the only one that saw through him.
Back into the kitchen it was, for a brandy now. If she could count the number of times….
She passed Mr. Shinseki and the Blums who had just joined together for a little light-hearted conversation. With no idea of how long they would wait, they had lapsed a bit from proscribed roles, though they kept their voices hushed.
“…one can’t really consider it entirely a technological marvel,” Shinseki was saying.
“Whatever do you mean?” Mrs. Blum asked.
“Yes, Shinseki—or whoever you bloody well are—please do enlighten us.” Mr. Blum bared his teeth, figuratively of course. Mrs. Smith wondered if he might not be growing a bit tired of playing the cuckold.
“My dear Mr. Blum, don’t allow our logger-head roles in the Performance to sully your estimation of my abilities. I hold an important role at State Industries. A physicist by trade. I’m just moon-lighting,” he said. “As I’m sure you know, they’re always looking for someone who can deliver the lines with a bit of gravity. Not someone who is going to drop character at a moments notice and run off.”
Everyone knew about whom Shinseki was speaking. Xian still had not returned.
“What I’m saying is that this entire complex is wired,” Shinseki continud.
“What do you mean ‘wired’?” Mrs. Blum asked.
“Masterson has this entire place cross-hatched with neural netting,” Shinseki went on. “It’s entirely invisible to us and too light to be felt—well, not entirely invisible as evidenced by Beatrice’s tether—and though we do not feel them, they pass through us as we pass through them. Now that I think about it, the relationship is much like the one alluded to in the Adjudicating Committee’s famous maxim about the abyss.”
“Why does everyone keep talking about that?” puffed Blum querulously, “I’ll be damned if I’ve ever heard of it.”
Mrs. Blum rolled her eyes, “Inconsequential, I’m sure.”
“In any case, such is the accuracy of their design, that these invisible leads of light are stopped not by flesh, not by hair, but only by the electrical signals that make up our nervous system. Using a technological process that defies even my understanding, this neural web is able to summon from our synaptic impulses images that would normally be irretrievable, and normally sacrosanct.”
“As if it were possible in this place,” Mrs. Blum sighed, entirely out of character. Mrs. Blum in the pink—meaning not the real Mrs. Blum at all (the real one having been dead for a century) but rather a demimonde (meaning a scientist of man’s profligate condition) with a gift for the theatrical—was not nearly as obtuse as her character. This Mrs. Blum understood quite clearly what Mr. Shinseki (whoever he really was) was saying. If anything, it was her husband (who was not her husband, but rather some idiot from the Academy) who stumbled through this quicksilver bandying like the proverbial Bovinerator in the ceramic factory.
Mr. Badubim, drawn to the rumbling of intellects as the proverbial moth is to the flame, joined their conversation. “That’s quite interesting, Shinseki. But I don’t see why it should concern us.”
“Perhaps it doesn’t,” Shinseki agreed. “But I would caution you against believing that Beatrice and whatever it was that Artaud saw are simply holographic.”
“If you’re trying to convince me that these… specters could be partly real then,” Mr. Blum wheezed in amusement, leaving his sentiment dangling.
“I wouldn’t try to convince you of anything, my dear Mr. Blum—or whoever you are,” Mr. Shinseki said shortly. “You’re obviously in possession of incredulity that far surpasses my own.”
Mr. Blum could not decide if he was being mocked, though the woman who played his wife turned her face away with the shadow of a smile.
“Mrs. Smith!” Mr. Masterson hands rested lightly on his daughter’s shimmering shoulders, but his eyes were hard as the steel Badubim had shipped to China. “Come here, please.”
She ran over: “Sorry sir, I was attending to the guests.”
“No you weren’t. You were listening to their gossip. I thought I ordered a brandy from you.”
“Terribly sorry, sir.”
He grabbed her arm. “Wait,” he took a deep breath. “You’ve kept your composure remarkably well, despite everything.”
“I try, sir.”
He nodded, then clenched one hand in a fist, “Damn that woman! Still plaguing me, even from beyond the veil!” Mrs. Smith could feel his attentions leaving her, turning inwards as they had before. She wondered how real she and her companions were to this man, this mummy. He was obviously someone who often roamed the galleries of memory (and what galleries they must be!). She had little doubt that despite Beatrice’s penumbral existence, she was more real to him than those that were flesh and blood.
And if Shinseki—whoever he really was—was right, there was a chance that she was, from a Positivist’s point of view.
When he didn’t continue, she spoke, “Is there something more sir?”
Shaken from his thoughts, he looked at her with revulsion before he had recovered his wits. His face resumed its stiff formality. “I need you to go to the Little Girl’s Room, Mrs. Smith. We’re missing Xian. Her part is crucial in the coming act.” He said. “But you know that already, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir. Yes, I do.”
She bowed and turned. Everyone was watching them.
‘The Little Girl’s Room’ indeed! He had some cheek.
Fortunately, she did not need to go far to find Xian. In fact, the two literally ran into each other at the door to the restroom. Xian’s eyes were red and puffy, her nostrils dilated at the sides.
It would avail Mrs. Smith nothing to express sympathy for this terrible actress, so she pretended she didn’t notice her discomfiture. “Madame Xian, Mr. Masterson requested that—”
“Out of the way, trollop!” Xian pushed past.
Mrs. Smith bit her tongue, but wondered how much more she could countenance. Surprisingly, she found herself hissing at the other’s square back: “Bitch. If I ever catch you in the lower levels, I’m going to cut your heart out.”
Mrs. Smith could bare her teeth too—figuratively of course—but if Xian had heard, she made no sign.