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The house of power, p.16
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       The House of Power, p.16

           Patrick Carman
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Dr. Kincaid glared at Vincent but spoke to him in the way old friends do when they share a secret.

  “Don’t you have some hunting to do? It’s getting aw fully late.”

  Vincent smiled knowingly at Dr. Kincaid and went into the cave. When he emerged there were two spears on his back.

  “I’ll be back before nightfall, as I’m not killing anything today. There was plenty of that last night.”

  When Vincent was gone, Dr. Kincaid rubbed his hands together with anticipation and theatrically unveiled both plates.

  There were two items on the plate in front of Edgar. One was something black and meaty, but he knew it wasn’t rabbit or mutton. The other was a chunky green pudding that looked a lot like something Edgar had seen blown out of noses when people had gotten sick after the third-year trees hadn’t been cut down in time.

  Dr. Kincaid picked up the meat on his own plate with his bare hand and dipped it into the green pudding. He raised it toward Edgar as one might ready to toast with a cup, and then he took a bite so big that Edgar was certain the old man would choke on it. By the time Dr. Kincaid had swallowed most of the food, Edgar still hadn’t moved.

  “Eat up, Edgar. I’m quite sure you’ll enjoy it,” he said through a mouthful of gooey food, which only served to increase Edgar’s distaste for the meal before him.

  But Edgar couldn’t remember when he’d been so hungry, which was no small thing, since he’d been hungry almost every day of his life. Hesitantly he picked up the meat and started to put it in his mouth.

  Dr. Kincaid made a disapproving sound and scowled, showing Edgar that he should first dip it in the green pudding.

  “I call it Black and Green for a reason,” he said. “The two go perfectly together and it would be a shame to eat them separately.”

  Edgar was about to ask what Black and Green was made of, but something told him that he might be better off not knowing. He followed Dr. Kincaid’s lead, dipping the meat into the pudding, and found that Black and Green was indeed very tasty. It was salty and sweet at the same time, and it filled him up unlike anything he’d ever eaten.

  Now that the boy was enjoying a plate of Black and Green, Dr. Kincaid knew there was nothing else to do but begin telling Edgar about the world he lived in. It was difficult at first, because Dr. Kincaid could only use words and concepts that simply made no sense to Edgar at all: microscience, biomechanics, DNA, metal and machines. It was as though Dr. Kincaid spoke a differ ent language, and Edgar leaned back in his chair, exasperated.

  “This meat is very good,” commented Edgar as he swallowed the last bite, not having understood a word Dr. Kincaid had said. “Where does it come from?”

  “It comes from the Cleaners, those beasts that almost ate you last night.”

  Edgar laughed nervously, which so delighted Dr. Kincaid that he continued on the topic.

  “The Cleaners are remarkable creatures, really. They are but one invention of the mind that created Atherton.”

  “Did you create Atherton?” asked Edgar. Luther smiled wryly.

  “I’m afraid not. This world is far too complicated even for me to wholly understand.” Dr. Kincaid was about to start explaining the origin of Atherton in scientific terms, but he was able to stop himself.

  Must keep this simple so that he will understand. Must not scare the boy.

  “Let me say it this way, Edgar. You weren’t born on Atherton. You were born someplace else. Where that place is doesn’t really matter because you can’t ever go back there—and I can assure you, you wouldn’t want to. While I may not be your father, I am your guardian, and I wouldn’t agree to come to Atherton unless you were allowed to live here with me.”

  “I don’t understand,” said Edgar, which was something he felt he would be saying quite a bit when listening to Dr. Kincaid.

  “Where you come from, there are almost no trees. Can you even imagine a place so unlike the grove? The air is filthy, nearly impossible to breathe. A person can live where you come from—lots of people do—but it’s not the beautiful world it used to be. If you must know, it’s called the Dark Planet, and it’s closer than you think.”

  “But how did I get here? How did anyone get here? And why don’t I remember my life before Atherton?”

  Again Dr. Kincaid slipped into speaking in terms Edgar couldn’t understand. He lectured about computers and machines and something called the third wave, until Edgar shook his head. Science, skyscrapers, televisions, cars, pollution—all of it was lost on the boy. It made the divide seem impassable to poor Dr. Kincaid.

  “Try again,” suggested Edgar. “And pretend you’re a boy like me. Maybe that will help.”

  Dr. Kincaid pondered this approach a moment before he continued.

  “There came a time on the Dark Planet when I and a group of other scientists—those are people who try to solve problems—had the idea of building a new place where people could live. We worked on it for a long time and found ourselves going in circles, not getting anywhere. But then we found someone who could help us.”

  He took a drink from his cup and dipped it back into the bowl.

  “There was a boy, Edgar, a very smart little boy who was an orphan just like you. His name was Max.” Edgar recognized that this was probably part of the story that Samuel had begun to read to him in the book of secret things.

  Dr. Kincaid seemed to light up at the thought of this other boy, but Edgar felt a little sting of remorse. He realized then that he was an orphan of not just one, but two worlds.

  “We all called him Max at first,” continued Dr. Kincaid. “But very soon we were in the habit of calling him Dr. Harding.”

  “You mean as a joke? To make him feel a part of things?”

  “No, I mean he was a lot better at fixing and making things than the rest of us were.”

  Dr. Kincaid was getting better at speaking in terms Edgar could understand.

  “What did Max do that was so special?” asked Edgar.

  “To be fair, by the time he was twenty none of us really understood all of what he was working on.”

  Dr. Kincaid wanted the boy to know how that could be possible, and he struck upon an idea that might make it clearer.

  “There is a thing on the Dark Planet called an airplane. Do you know what that is, Edgar?”

  Edgar thought for a moment that he might know, but then he drew a blank. He shook his head.

  “An airplane is a man-made thing that can carry you around in the air. But it’s a complicated machine, very complicated, and many are far bigger than these rocks towering around us. It takes hundreds of people to put one together. Everyone works on a small part but nobody makes the whole thing. They each learn about the one part they are building, but they can’t know how to build the entire airplane. It would be too much information for a single person to understand all at once.”

  Dr. Kincaid wasn’t sure if he’d lost the boy, but he thought he was doing all right, and so he continued.

  “Now, Edgar, imagine something a lot more complicated than an airplane, so complicated in fact that it would involve thousands of different kinds of smart people doing extraordinary things all at the same time. And now try to imagine one person who designed it all, who created it completely in his mind by the age of thirty. If you can imagine such a person, then you have come closer to knowing why we took to calling Max by the name of Dr. Harding.”

  “So Dr. Harding created Atherton, is that it?”

  “In the simplest terms, yes. But there were… complications.”

  “What sort of complications?”

  Dr. Kincaid thought for a moment before responding.

  “Let’s just say that Dr. Harding wasn’t altogether normal. He was… troubled.”

  “What do you mean, ‘troubled’?”

  There was no sense hiding it now. The boy would have to know sooner or later.

  “Dr. Harding was what we might call a ‘mad scientist,’ Edgar. He kept a great many things from us. Some we now know about,
some we do not. I’m afraid the story gets a little darker from here. Do you want me to go on?”

  Edgar could think of nothing he wanted more (there being no more Black and Green to be had), and so Dr. Kincaid began to unravel the mystery of Dr. Maximus Harding.






  “Are you ready?”

  “Yes, Father, I’m ready.”

  Light streamed under the door of her small room as she touched the bag of figs at her side.

  “As we said, remember?”

  Isabel nodded. “Just one shot, then I run and climb into the tree.”

  Charles pulled her near, having second thoughts about allowing her out of the house at all.

  The two stepped outside and found that no one else could be seen in the village. There was an eerie quiet that took Isabel’s breath away. The children had all been sent to climb trees in the grove, and the familiar sound of their little voices could not be heard. Was that the sound she missed, she wondered? It was not. It was a silence more maddening than peaceful—the sound of a world gone dry.

  There had never been a time when Isabel could not hear the waterfall, but today the sound had gone. Lord Phineus had stopped the water flow entirely. The exhilarating sound of water crashing across rock would very soon be a thing of the past in Tabletop. They would speak of it as if it were a dream and try to remember, but the sound would soon be forgotten.

  Isabel raised her eyes to the Highlands and saw a wall of men astride horses along the edge. They were close enough that Isabel could see the expressions on the men’s faces and hear strange sounds emanating from the creatures.

  “Those aren’t men,” she croaked, terrified. “They’re giant beasts with four legs and two arms!”

  Charles hadn’t thought to warn Isabel of the strange creatures he had seen for the first time earlier that day. He was in something of a state of shock himself.

  “We’ve been watching them as they grow near,” he said. “They’re not attached. The men are riding those beasts. Like when you were little and we put you on a sheep and rode you around. Do you remember that?”

  Isabel did not, but the idea that these men were in command of such huge animals made her wonder if trying to fight them were a good idea after all.

  “Are we making a mistake, father?” asked Isabel. “Maybe we should listen to them first and do as they say. If we do, then Tabletop might not change too much…. We could rebuild the houses, and you could run the grove.”

  Charles knelt down next to Isabel. “I’m afraid it’s too late for that.” There was sadness in his voice as he gazed back into the grove behind them. “I’ll miss the simple life of the grove, the days of trimming and pruning.” He looked back at Isabel and she saw fire in his eyes. “But I won’t miss watching you go hungry and without water whenever the mood strikes them.”

  As if to make his point clearer, Isabel’s stomach rumbled. She wasn’t certain if it was from hunger or from nervousness.

  “You’re too young to have your innocence taken from you,” he said. “That they would poison us, all of us—the children included—is unjust. The truth is the Highlands are filled with cruel people, and they have come to rule over us with force.”

  With that thought echoing eerily in her mind, Isabel stared at the men on horses expecting to see evil looks on their faces. She did not see any evidence of it. For a fleeting moment she wondered if maybe they were just as stunned by the fall of the Highlands as everyone in Tabletop had been. But trusting her father’s words, she cast her own look of fire and anger across the line of men—and just as she did so, the ground began to shake.

  There was a horrifying sound, like a vast row of grinding teeth, and the Highlands crashed toward Tabletop as though whatever had been holding it in place had been kicked out from beneath it.

  The line of horses scattered in every direction. One of them, unaware of the peril at the edge, came so near as it turned that its back legs careened over the edge. Moments later the Highlands lurched to a stop ten feet from the bottom, and the horse and man were thrown off the edge with a dramatic crash into Tabletop. The two of them were injured but not dead. The horse remained on its side, whining pitifully as the man tried to free his leg from beneath the animal.

  The horses that lined the Highlands returned to their positions. Isabel heard the men in the Highlands yelling, “Stay back! Stay back!” When she looked behind her, she saw the men and women of the grove rushing into position. It would take them a minute to arrive—and in that minute, a great many things were about to take place.

  “Isabel! You must do it right now!” her father shouted.

  Isabel’s eyes darted back and forth among the men, and she now noticed a man in the middle of the line who was not like the others. He wore a dark robe that draped over the sides of his horse, dangling against black boots. The widow’s peak of his hair pointed down at her, and he had a bold look of triumph on his face as if daring her to turn against him. It was Lord Phineus—the target she was seeking.

  A fig caked with dust was already poised in her sling, and she began swinging it over her head with a fierce whirling sound that seemed to set the rest of the world to silence. The people from the grove—fanning out behind her—stopped and waited. As the men on horses in the Highlands became aware of this bold girl from the grove, a mixture of amazement, indignation, and curiosity hushed their shouting. It was a frozen moment that buzzed with anticipation.

  I’m going to miss him. I know I’m going to miss him, thought Isabel as the sling spun faster and faster over her head.

  Lord Phineus sat high on his horse, almost amused by the child’s play. Shifting his gaze to the land beyond, he wished the Highlands would finish its descent so that he could ride through the villages, aiming his spear where he chose. He could almost imagine spurring his horse into a grand leap over the edge of the Highlands. She just might make it without breaking a leg, and then he could lead his forty men as a general should.

  He chose to speak instead.

  “If you can hear me, I order you to turn back! Do not dare to think that you can enter the Highlands. There will be bloodshed if you try!” He felt the power of his voice rippling over the village and into the grove.

  It struck him then that the people weren’t sick as he thought they ought to have been. He had thought only of victory as the Highlands crashed downward, but now he understood that his plan had somehow gone horribly wrong.

  Then: Snap! Isabel had grown accustomed to the long sling, and she watched as the black fig shot through the air toward her target.

  Lord Phineus had been unwise to dismiss the threat of a small girl. He saw the approaching object too late, a mere second before it was about to hit him. He ducked to the side and the black fig, which Isabel had aimed at his chest, hit him square in the meat of his shoulder.

  The pain was sharp and instantaneous. Lord Phineus pitched forward on his horse and found that he was in a haze of orange dust. He waved his hands and felt his throat constricting, and then he began to cough as he had never coughed before.

  Isabel had agreed to throw only one fig, to show those from the Highlands what she and the others were capable of, to show them they should not come into the grove. But in the tension of the confrontation, she couldn’t help herself. She thought that if she could hit him just once more, their leader would be down and the will to fight would leave the rest of them. When Lord Phineus looked up, Isabel was already swinging the sling over her head again.

  He heard the snap! once more.

  In that instant, he pulled the reins of his horse, and the animal reared onto its hind legs. The fig slammed into the horse’s neck, and a plume of dust shot into the air. Lord Phineus got his wish to fly off the cliff on his horse, for the startled animal bolted the moment its legs hit the ground, and over the edge the two of them went.

  The horse landed surprisingly we
ll but seemed in a mad rage when it hit the ground, charging at full speed toward the grove with Lord Phineus coughing and wheezing on its back. None of the other men followed suit. They seemed more inclined to wait a little longer until the fall wasn’t quite so steep. Some were already contemplating a retreat at the sight of a hundred men and women from Tabletop in a line of their own, readying their slings.

  The Highlands came alive again, and this time the grinding of the last ten feet was so deafening that everyone in Tabletop covered their ears and looked on in wonder. The horses bucked and ran in every direction until the Highlands were but a few inches from the bottom. It lurched to a violent stop, then seemed to crawl the last few inches with a soft, gurgling noise.

  The Highlands were no more.

  When Lord Phineus reached the first trees of the grove, he found that he could not sit up on the horse without smashing into a tree limb. He hung around the animal’s neck as the animal darted between trees, racing in mad terror until its lungs were so infected with the orange dust it could run no more. The horse began to act as though it might topple over, and Lord Phineus briskly dismounted, buckling over and coughing so hard it dropped him to his knees. When he stood up again the horse was on its side, wheezing painfully.

  Lord Phineus now realized he was approaching the clearing where Mr. Ratikan’s house had been. He had drawn his sword and wanted to use it on someone, anyone on whom he could unleash his rage. He couldn’t possibly run with his lungs so tight, and it would be a long walk back to find his men. He was badly in need of water, and for a moment wished he’d not restricted the supply to Tabletop.

  “Mr. Ratikan?” It hurt his throat to say the man’s name. “Where are you?”

  There was no reply, but soon he thought he heard a man coughing. Turning to his left, he saw Mr. Ratikan tied to a tree.

  “You didn’t hear me when I called?” said Lord Phineus, his voice raspy and labored. He approached Mr. Ratikan with a fury.

  “I had been sleeping…,” Mr. Ratikan said, and immediately wished he hadn’t, but it was too late.

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