“No less than the great Charles Darwin himself—” Shinseki had resumed his pitch, and in earnest. Both sides were in hot pursuit of financial and political support for their respective Exodus programs.
“Pfft, that buffoon!” Badubim sputtered. “As if we could have descended from something as base as an ape.”
“—spent the last years of his life poring over the evidence that the L. Terrastis provides,” Shinseki continued undaunted. “That small almost imperceptible quantitative changes can accumulate over time and eventually change our world in a significant way.”
The real Madame Xian had been a notorious attack dog, brutal as barbed wire. Her double had thus far paled in comparison this important night, but now was her chance to make up for her earlier blunder.
“Ah hah!” she laughed. “Shinseki speaks as though he were a devotee of the Cult of the Worm!”
“If by labeling me a sympathizer you hope to shame me,” Shinseki declaimed, “I must tell you that I welcome such defamation. While others may disparage it as a ‘Cult’, the enlightened amongst us accepts as an indisputable truth.”
Madame Xian stood from her chair, her trousers rippling in the thermal drafts that still issued from the kitchen, as though she were ready to set sail. “You act as if I know nothing of what I speak, Shinseki. As if I were just some backwater reactionary. But I know. Believe me.
“The earthworm burrows when surface conditions become unfavorable to survival. There they sleep until circumstances improve. Any thinking woman or man today can see that, in that respect, we share some similarities.” And now she looked around at the others present, hands clasped behind her back. “But we are not them. We do not wait for ill fortune to reverse. Humanity does not hide when the ‘going gets tough’. We move on to greener pastures, if need be.”
Mrs. Smith had to admit, if only to herself, that Madame Xian was doing much better than she had expected.
“We have colonized the poles. Your own corporation, Shinseki, has established a presence there. We—and I don’t mean humanity, I mean IndoSteelNGas—have plumbed the depths of the oceans, establishing a community on the seafloor.”
Mrs. Smith wondered what had happened to that underwater community. They must have been abandoned in the ensuing chaos, left alone with the endlessly streaming cameras that had recorded all their antics and gaffs. The idea of gazing up at hath after hath of black seawater, knowing you would never again emerge into the light of day, gave her the shivers.
“If we can…,” Xian ceased talking and snapped her fingers. She began to perspire, “put a community thousands of miles deep.”
Artaud hazarded a question, “Is the ocean really that deep?”
“Excuse me, Sanders.”
“Artaud. Antonin Artaud.”
“Yes, of course.” Xian sweated profusely now. “Where was I? ‘If we abandon the Martian venture…,’” The lipids that had kept her eyes aslant interacted unfavorably with her sweat. Her eyes began to droop, resuming the characteristically oval shape of those who had spent generations in the Lower Levels.
Xian was literally unraveling as she spoke.
For some reasons, of all the monologues Mrs. Smith remembered this one word for word. The lines came clearly to her, as if by revelation.
And what did she have to lose? She was adrift, long removed from family. Most of her friends were already dust, their names absorbed in the Ledger.
She heard herself reciting the lines, “‘Mark my words, time will prove them correct: if we flee beneath the earth like worms escaping drought, we will create not a thriving world, but an empty shell, our notions empty, our future a dead end carved in isolation.“
Everyone was still, silent as the grave, as grim as the vault in which the great mushrooms grew miles below these Gilded Flats, this strange Oscillatrix.
Madame Xian, eyes drooping, hair falling out, ran from the room.
Suddenly Mrs. Smith was very aware of her actions. What had possessed her? Had the chimerical victory she had achieved over Mr. Thick emboldened her in such rashness? Chimerical it was indeed for although the actor—that crypto-Heliophile and slavering devotee of Moshe (she mustn’t forget to tell Masterson)—was dead, Mr. Thick lived on and would do so for as long as Masterson hosted the Performance. And every time, that slavish manservant would make a slave of her, barking orders that were different yet the same, year after year.
There were only so many ellipses she could make around that table, just as there were only so many orbital paths a planet could take around the sun. But perhaps her intricate passage would effect, over time—for she had played this role a decade at least—a beauty not unlike the elaborate Mandala that would appear if one could track a planet’s circumnavigation of the sun by affixing (for example) a tether of light to it, and allowing it a span of time—say that of a lonely woman’s—to make its way across the obscurity.
Perhaps that was all that she could hope for from this Performance of life: an artistic act so subtle and ingenious in its design that none would notice, just as one could no longer now see the night sky, nor the infinite reach of the galaxy within which these celestial bodies etched their fine and noble tracery.