Since the incident with Xian—her flubbing her lines, followed by the dramatic departure—Mrs. Smith had kept herself in the back of the house. She didn’t know what sort of fallout might arise from her impertinence (What had she been thinking?) and, whereas before the silent labor of the BOIs™ had been unnerving, now the silent swish of the Vacubrum™, the steady chop of the knife through the GlamourShrooms™ (these being prepared for dessert) and the whirring of their wheels as they bustled from station to station was relaxing. Even the soft hiss of the steam still issuing from the rent in the wall was somehow soothing despite the obvious danger it bespoke.
She thought perhaps a moment’s rest would do her well. The others could wait.
Strangely, no one asked again about Mr. Thick. It was as if he had never existed. From that moment forth, Masterson communicate solely with Mrs. Smith.
Case in point: his voice coming over the D.I.S. implant, “Mrs. Smith, the dessert, please.”
When she brought out the dun colored stimulant in steaming mugs and the sweet cakes, jeweled with frost and hanging with sugar icicles she had applied herself, she discovered that the Performance was ending with more of a whimper than a bang.
Poor, exhausted Beatrice had gone to sleep. Her head rested on her father’s lap and as he stroked her golden hair, his hand passing right through her head, the repetitive motion, done without true purpose, betrayed a sobering reality: although the Performance was performed largely for Masterson—truth be told, entirely for him—he was no longer paying attention.
Though Mr. and Mrs. Blum shouted at each other, the former accusing the latter of meretricious flirtations with Mr. Hassan Shinseki, the last in this bitter love triangle attempting to broker peace in a farcical scene that was almost entirely extemporaneous, the fact that Masterson had lost interest escaped none of them. Accordingly, when Mrs. Blum flung her wine into her husband’s face, the action was at best lackadaisical and at worst testament to the cynical detachment that had thus far marred the whole affair.
Mrs. Smith knew enough about this part of the Performance to realize that the couple’s break-up had not, of course, happened only in one night. The scene encapsulated what had been, in reality and rather long-drawn and extremely vitriolic process. In sum, unable to reconcile their differences, the Blums had lost most of their assets. Holdings from Siberia to North Africa, had been divided, sold off or nationalized by disgruntled regimes. Ruined financially and wracked by reciprocated vitriol, the once eminent couple’s contributions to the Exodus project had died with their union.
From what she had gathered from Masterson, the events leading up to the Descent were rife with similar foibles.
Badubim waved Mrs. Smith’s sweet cake away. As no one was keeping track any longer, he enjoined the nearby Artaud in conversation.
“We haven’t heard a thing about you all night,” he said.
“I’m sorry, are you talking to me?” Artaud was surprised someone was actually talking to him.
They both laughed.
“Can you believe that cunt?” Artaud said, chuckling to himself. Rimbaud stuck its head out of his jacket.
“Yes,” Badubim said, “As a matter of fact, I can. I’ve worked with her before, many times as a matter of fact.”
“Worked?” Artaud asked. “In what capacity, might I ask.”
“As an actor, of course.”
Artaud’s drunken eyes strained to focus, “I thought you were a business man… don’t tell me. IndoGasNSteel, was it?”
Badubim’s smile dropped. The Blum’s stopped their histrionics. Shinseki also strained to hear the conversation.
“A business man,” Badubim chuckled, though without mirth. “My dear Artaud.”
“Why did she keep calling me Sanders, anyway?”
At a loss of what to say, Badubim silently entreated the others. No one had a clue of what to say. No one except Masterson, of course.
“Do you know why you’re here?” their host asked. “Why you were invited?”
“Actually,” Artaud answered carefully. “I’ve been wondering that all night.”
“Are you not, in truth, August Artaud, actor and theorist of the Theater?”
“So then, if you are a theorist, surely you would count yourself a discerning critic.”
“Well then: What did you think of the Performance?”
“What…” Artaud looked around bluntly. “What performance?”
Unbelievable. Artaud really didn’t have a clue. Mrs. Smith tutted in reproof, only after she had done so did she realize that she had resumed the prudish mannerisms of her character again, entirely unconsciously.
Mr. Masterson heard her, “Observe, if you will, the maunderings and mutterings of our Mrs. Smith. Do not her provincial utterances strike you as a bit odd?”
“Nosh at all, Mr. Masterson sir, nosh at all,” Mrs. Smith said, going a bit beyond the occasion in an effort to support his point.
“If you’re asking whether her speech surprises me, all I can say is that we have even stranger turns-of-phrase down below, and that dialects are manifold.”
Masterson absorbed this, “I hadn’t thought of that.” And then his lips formed a smile, understated, but a smile nonetheless.
Mr. Blum spoke, “So, you have no idea, then, of why you are here and what…function your presence fulfills?”
Artaud was growing agitated, “That’s what I’m trying to say, yes!”
At this admission, Mrs. Blum burst into laughter. “Thank the State!” she practically sobbed.
Mr. Blum, though still wet from the wine, hung his head and sighed in relief. He embraced his erstwhile spouse. Shinseki joined them.
Badubim was almost crying, “By State, I’ll be glad for one of those cakes now!”
Beatrice stirred in her sleep, aroused by the sudden celebratory hubbub. Her eyes fluttered. As she passed them with her tray, Mrs. Smith heard Masterson speaking in soothing tones. “Calm yourself,” he whispered. “This will all be over soon.” Then he addressed her, “When you’ve finished serving them, I’d like you to come with me.”
Mrs. Smith was taken aback. Nonetheless, she nodded dutifully.
In the meantime, Badubim, Shinseki and the Blums had joined hands. They whirled about in a circle in an impromptu dance. Mrs. Blum detached for a moment and drew Artaud from his seat. “Come here, you brilliant, witless actor!” she cried. “All this time and you didn’t have a clue!”
Artaud, who was quite drunk by this time, stumbled. His legs gave out and he fell, whereupon his head hit the marble-hued stone with a flat crack. Rimbaud snuck from the folds of his jacket, nosed the air and then escaped through the front doors.
In their utter jubilation, the others paid no heed to the critic’s unfortunate accident. They leapt and pranced, only pausing in their Saturnalia to drain the dregs of wine and stuff the sweet cakes whole into their red mouths.
Masterson smiled, “They’ll celebrate like this for some time. Perhaps now would be a good time to effect our departure.”
“But what about Artaud….”
“He’ll be alright. The neural netting has confirmed he’s just unconscious. Probably dreaming of…what do people from the Lower Levels dream of, Mrs. Smith?”
If he wanted an answer, he didn’t wait for one, instead rejoining Beatrice as she floated near the table. He warned not to wander too far in his absence. Then he kissed her on the forehead, which was strange to watch because, as she was entirely incorporeal, his lips disappeared inside her brow. He grabbed her tether and affixed it to a chair leg. Finally he nodded to Mrs. Smith. “Let’s go.”
They walked into the kitchen. She wondered if she ought to explain the BOI™’s heat-melted carcass, still stuck to the wall beneath the plastic sheen. But she was too curious to find out what Mr. Masterson wanted to suffer distraction. She saw with relief that the gore left by Mr. Thick’s demise had been cleaned up. She could explain all the details of the manservant’s tergiversation later.
“We’ll have to get Mr. Thick to clean all this up,” Masterson said after noting the damage. “Listen my dear…what is your real name, by the way?”
“Oh sir, Mrs. Smith will do jus’ fine. Wouldn’t want to trouble you, sir. Nosh at all.”
He smiled. “You needn’t persist in all that. We can drop the façade for the nonce.”
“As I was saying: you’ll want to keep up now, my dear. We’ve still a ways to go.”
They walked through the hallway and past the Vacubrum closet in which Mr. Thick had cornered her, spouting his wild theories of Moshe’s return. They continued on, into the bowels of the complex. Without Masterson’s guidance, Mrs. Smith was sure that she would have been hopelessly lost by now.
Finally they reached a semi-circular alcove. Hard rungs cemented into the wall led to a hatch in the roof.
“I have aeries all over Subterranea,” Masterson said. “But this is the highest. Except for the evapo-transporters, this is the highest anyone ever gets in our world. The closest to the sun and sky.”
He climbed the rungs and opened a hatch in the roof. Immediately the wild currents that plied the caverns caught his hair and tossed it about, as mothers muss their children’s locks. Hair arrayed about his head in a undulating mass, eyes wild with nostalgia, Masterson bade her rise with him.
“This is where I keep The Ship,” he said and in his smile she saw the ruin of the years. “Only the best performers ever see it. And then only once.”
Finally after all these years: recognition at last.