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The house of power, p.20
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       The House of Power, p.20

           Patrick Carman
 
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  As they walked a little farther, when Edgar lifted his feet he noticed how they were dragged forward in the air. He made a game of watching his feet move of their own accord.

  When they came within a few feet of the edge, Dr. Kincaid sat down in the dirt and told Edgar to do the same. They nudged forward until they reached the very edge, and Dr. Kincaid swung his legs over, holding them out in the open air. Edgar faltered a moment, unsure if he could go through with it, then he, too, lowered his legs over the edge.

  If you could have observed Edgar and Dr. Kincaid from the space beyond the edge, it would have been quite a sight: the cliffs of Atherton towering above two small people with their legs curling over the edge of the world. Dr. Kincaid leaned out and Edgar followed hesitantly.

  The Dark Planet came into view for the first time. It was monstrous in size and stunningly close. It was dark, as Dr. Kincaid had said it would be—a huge, round world in varied shades of grey and brown. There was a sadness about it, as though it were coming to the end of a long life of pain and suffering. The sight stirred mixed emotions in Edgar: Even as it made him almost want to cry, he felt a strange longing to go there, to see the world where he had been born.

  “If you were to fall off, you wouldn’t fall straight down into nothingness,” said Dr. Kincaid. “Gravity would draw you back in toward the round bottom until you crashed into it. The impact could certainly kill you.”

  Edgar wanted more than anything to turn over, slide down, and climb around on the bottom of Atherton. If what Dr. Kincaid said was true, wouldn’t gravity hold him? He looked at his hand with the missing finger and felt a phantom pain where the pinky had been. This was not the day to climb around on the underbelly of the world.

  Edgar thought he heard a faint clicking sound, though he might have imagined it. The idea of a Cleaner taking hold of him with those monstrous teeth and ripping him from the edge proved too much, and Edgar pulled his legs back into the Flatlands.

  “It’s good you got that out of your system,” said Dr. Kincaid. “It was something you needed to see, and I’m very glad we could come here together, but there are other pressing matters at hand.”

  The two of them crawled away from the edge until they felt comfortable enough to stand and begin walking back to the pathway.

  Vincent was waiting for them at the foot of the path with a rope slung over his shoulder, carrying something under one arm. “What do you think of the Dark Planet, Edgar?”

  Edgar said the first words that came to his mind. “It looks sad. And dirty.”

  “You have captured it better than most in a mere five words,” remarked Vincent. “Well done.”

  As they approached, Edgar realized that Vincent was hauling a large chunk of a Cleaner. It was a slice about the width of Edgar’s foot. Six bony legs with sharp claws at the ends hung from the bottom and thick, green liquid that looked like pudding was dripping from it.

  “Excellent!” cried Dr. Kincaid. “It looks as though Vincent has done some hunting today after all. Have you any water?”

  Vincent leaned over, and the rope rolled down in front of him. It was attached to a jug and it was glistening with water, as though it had recently been dipped in a pool and hadn’t dried off yet.

  “Perfect!” said Dr. Kincaid. “Now, come with us, Vincent. You simply must see this boy climb. You’ve never seen anything like it!”

  CHAPTER

  29

  UNLOCKING DR. HARDING’S BRAIN

  By the time Edgar and his new companions had returned safely to the flat, it was clear that Dr. Kincaid and Vincent were planning a journey. The two of them had talked endlessly of what to pack and what routes would be the safest, and Edgar had carefully listened to everything they’d said. Still, he was confused about where they were going and why—until the three of them sat down for another plate of Black and Green. It was then that Edgar was able to sneak in a question while the two men were chewing their food.

  “Why must you travel so far?” asked Edgar.

  Dr. Kincaid and Vincent looked at one another between bites and seemed unsure of what to say.

  “Look closely at your old home,” said Vincent. Dr. Kincaid nodded and seemed to comply with where Vincent was going. “Do you see it moving?”

  Edgar stared hard at the top of the cliffs, but he could see nothing.

  “It’s not moving very fast, but it is steady,” said Dr. Kincaid. “It will keep coming, and it will not stop moving until…”

  “Until what?” pressed Edgar.

  “Until it reaches the very bottom,” said Dr. Kincaid. “And our world is flat. Then it will stop.”

  Edgar was surprised, but not as much as he would have been had he not seen the same thing happening to the Highlands only a few days before.

  “How long will it take?” asked Edgar, who hadn’t yet eaten a bite. He finally took the meat from his plate and dipped it into the slippery pudding.

  “We’re not entirely sure,” said Vincent. His long brown hair was dangling close to the green pudding as he leaned over his plate. “It could be all the way down by tomorrow, or it might take a few days. We’re not completely sure.”

  Edgar hadn’t realized the change would occur so fast, and he suddenly had a vision of Cleaners running free in the grove, devouring trees, sheep, rabbits, and people.

  “How about a change of subject?” said Dr. Kincaid. He could see the fear in Edgar’s expression. The boy hadn’t yet had his question answered about how far they were traveling, and Edgar began to sense that they didn’t want him to know where they were going and why.

  “Why not tell Edgar more of our Dr. Harding,” said Vincent. “I can’t help enjoying tales of the strange scientist myself.”

  Dr. Kincaid nodded and stood up. He’d always been a better thinker on his feet. “The man had many eccentricities. He hated birds, bugs, most of the various large animals. Unlike most mod ern scientists, he thought there were far too many species on the Dark Planet, which he felt complicated the natural world and caused untold illness. In designing Atherton, he settled on rabbits, sheep, and horses and not much else. Those, he said, would do just fine. He was very proud of the hybrid fig tree he’d designed and saw it as the perfect source of food and other resources. It was troubling to him when he discovered they were poisonous after the third year. He’d not worked out a solution to that before….”

  Vincent saw that Dr. Kincaid was veering into sensitive territory and redirected. “He also had strong opinions about books, didn’t he, Luther?”

  “Indeed.” Dr. Kincaid cleared his throat, shifting his attention to Vincent’s question. “He believed books only belonged in the hands of those who were worthy of them, those who could understand and put them to a good use. There were those who worked—in the grove and with the animals—and those who studied. Dr. Harding saw the two as mutually exclusive. One either worked with his hands or with his mind, and mixing the two created all sorts of problems. A laborer with a book had questions, curiosities, and in the end, demands. He believed that many of history’s most violent uprisings were caused by the educating of those who ought to have been left to the fields. And so the Highlands have books—albeit some pretty ancient ones—and Tabletop is without them.”

  “I wish I could read,” remarked Edgar.

  “Don’t fret, Edgar—I have a great many books of my own, and one day I shall teach you to read. There are a lot of very old books up there in the Highlands, things that wouldn’t spark a memory of life on the Dark Planet. My books are better, and you shall read them! In fact, I see no reason at all why everyone on Atherton shouldn’t be shown how to read again. Readiness training may have hidden that talent from many, but it will make a quick return for those who have the will to learn.”

  Dr. Kincaid paced back and forth as he continued to tell about the man who had brought Atherton into existence.

  “Dr. Harding kept a great many secrets from us. He even kept them from himself, if you can imagine such a thin
g. He would use a technique in which he could lock vast groups of complex information behind numbers in his mind so that he didn’t have to remember them all at once. He assigned a number to each set of information, which worked like a key in his mind. Once the lock was undone, it would open the storehouse of information he had hidden there.”

  Dr. Kincaid darted off toward the cave without warning.

  “He does that sometimes,” Vincent said casually. “Gets an idea in his head and then dashes off to pursue it without telling me a thing. Give it a moment. He’ll be back.”

  In no time Dr. Kincaid stood before Edgar and Vincent with a journal in his hand. It had a worn cover and faded yellow pages with torn and dirty edges not unlike the book of secret things.

  “This happens to be one of Dr. Harding’s journals.”

  Edgar noticed that as Dr. Kincaid flipped the pages, every one of them was filled with columns of five-digit numbers and keywords.

  Inner workings 44857

  Rock formations 22302

  Secretion 32439

  Memory glands 32441

  Outer worlds? 13120

  “Each of these numbers unlocks something he’d hidden away in his mind, or I should say it unlocks the first chamber, which sometimes leads to another, and another, and who knows how many beyond that. Dr. Harding made hundreds of these journals. Countless equations, ideas, and inventions were locked away in his mind—and he could find any one of them whenever he chose by following the path he’d set out for himself. But there came a problem that was the beginning of all the other problems.”

  “What sort of problem do you mean?” asked Edgar.

  “This is the only journal that remains. All the others are gone.”

  “Gone? Did someone take them?”

  “He burned them. All but this one, which was the very first. He made this when he was still a boy of twelve, and I don’t think it has anything of great value in it.”

  “Why would he burn the numbers?”

  Dr. Kincaid sat back down in his chair and closed the journal.

  “It’s another great mystery, Edgar. Perhaps Dr. Harding reached the end of what his mind would hold. Maybe he thought if he could destroy the existing numbers, his mind would be erased and he could fill it up again. I don’t know. He was a very complicated person.”

  “Dr. Kincaid,” said Edgar. “Why have you never returned to the Dark Planet as you used to?”

  “When I left you on Tabletop, I didn’t know. I couldn’t have known.”

  “You didn’t know what?”

  “Oh, I knew there was trouble, big trouble ahead. I didn’t know what it would be, but I knew it was coming.”

  “Don’t torture yourself,” said Vincent. “We’ve been over and over this, and it wasn’t your fault. There was nothing you could have done.”

  “Dr. Kincaid, what are you talking about?” asked Edgar.

  Dr. Kincaid pulled something out of his pocket that he’d brought from the cave with the journal. Edgar had never seen anything like it. It was as shiny and black as a fig, but it was oblong and made of a material unknown to him.

  “There was a time when people on the Dark Planet, so far away, could hear my voice with another object like this. I could talk into it, and even if they were very far away, they could hear me.”

  This seemed like a fantasy to Edgar, and he couldn’t bring himself to believe it.

  “It doesn’t work any longer,” continued Vincent. “Dr. Harding wouldn’t allow much of anything onto Atherton that might contaminate it… anything like machines and computers that might turn it into a place like the Dark Planet.”

  Dr. Kincaid jumped back in. “But this thing did work for a time. And it wasn’t just people from the Dark Planet that contacted me on it. There was another….”

  “Dr. Harding?” asked Edgar.

  “Yes, Dr. Harding,” answered Dr. Kincaid, turning somber as he thought back. “It was Dr. Harding who disconnected. We didn’t know it then, but he was able to cut all links between Atherton and the Dark Planet. He severed Atherton from its home forever. We’re floating free around the Dark Planet. They can see us but they can’t contact us.”

  “Where is Dr. Harding now? Is he dead?”

  Dr. Kincaid set the device on the table and breathed a deep sigh of frustration. Vincent ate the very last bite of Black and Green from his plate and wiped his bare arm across his face.

  “My boy,” he said. “You have finally come to a question the good doctor cannot answer.”

  CHAPTER

  30

  SAMUEL MAKES HIS CASE

  A small group of men crouched beneath the tall trees, waiting and wondering whether or not they should move. All but one were leaderless members of Sir Philip’s brigade. They had endured a long morning of fighting and returned to a House of Power unwilling to take them in. Concern over whom they could trust had compelled them to approach the Village of Rabbits and see what allies they might find.

  One member of the group in particular had grave doubts about Lord Phineus. He was the only one who had not been among Sir Philip’s fighting men in the Village of Sheep. It was Horace—from the House of Power—who had been asked to leave his post a few hours before. When he’d returned, the gate was locked and Horace was refused reentry, so he went searching for others who had also been refused at the gate.

  Some of the men had scattered, trying to find a way into the House of Power or simply going back home with no plan for getting water or food. But Horace had pulled aside five of Sir Philip’s men, and they’d all agreed: Lord Phineus was a violent man, and his way of ruling Atherton had not worked. He had to be stopped.

  In the absence of Sir Philip, Horace took the lead of the five men, for he had held an important post—very close to the seat of power—and the men were in search of a leader.

  “We can’t wait here all day,” said Horace. “One of us will have to go to them.”

  He glanced at each of the men’s faces and saw not a volunteer among them. This turned out not to be a problem for Horace, for when he gazed back at the Village of Rabbits, he saw a group of men with clubs heading toward him and his men.

  “Leave your swords in the trees,” said Horace, “and come with me.” He felt certain there would be no hope of a peaceful encounter if both sides came with weapons of war. The men reluctantly followed the command as Horace stepped out from the protection of the trees and walked toward the oncoming mob, his men following hesitantly.

  “Get back to your own land!” screamed someone from the Village of Rabbits. “We’re prepared to protect ourselves if we must!”

  Horace held his arms up and told the rest of the men to do the same. “We’ve brought no swords with us. We’re unarmed and only want to talk. Have you a leader among you who would listen to us?”

  There was some chatter in the group, and then one of them ran to the inn and disappeared. When the messenger reemerged, Briney and Maude were with him.

  There was arguing Horace couldn’t discern, though he was sure they were debating whether or not he and the others from the Highlands had come to trick them.

  Eventually, Briney and Maude ventured closer to Horace without the rest of their group. “Are you here on errand from Lord Phineus?” asked Maude. She was the most matter-of-fact in the group and had no trouble getting to the point.

  “We weren’t sent by anyone,” said Horace. “We just want to talk.”

  Maude and Briney whispered to one another.

  “What’s your name?” asked Maude. Horace told her.

  “All right, Horace. You alone can come with us to the inn. Send your boys back to the trees.”

  A vision of Horace’s little boy flashed before his eyes, sitting at their kitchen table with bowls and spoons, watching the stream flow by in front of their little house. And then he remembered how the water that had always run in front of his house had disappeared, how it had felt on his feet to walk the dry bottom of the stream bed.

  “Go
on,” he said to the other men, motioning them back to the trees. They were not willing at first and wished they’d brought their spears, but Horace convinced them that it was the only way.

  “If we find you’ve been sent by Lord Phineus, you’ll never see those trees again. You might want to take a last look.” Maude still didn’t trust this man of the Highlands with droopy eyes and no hair on the top of his head.

  When they entered the inn, it was dark but for a few wicks burning, and Horace was escorted to a table. Rabbits were being cooked on the fire as a group of men and women stood nearby.

  “That table,” said Briney, pointing to the same corner where Sir Emerik had been questioned by Edgar. Horace crossed the room and sat down while Maude told the rest to set the rabbits on the stick aside and wait outside. Soon the inn was empty but for the crackling fire and three people seated in a gloomy corner.

  “Why have you come here?” asked Briney. He regarded the man before him thoughtfully, trying to read his expression.

  “Because I think we misunderstand one another,” said Horace.

  “I understand Lord Phineus planned to poison us, and that you are one of his men,” said Maude.

  Horace tried to answer, but Maude wouldn’t let him.

  “I understand how you’ve taken every fig and rabbit and sheep you could force from us.”

  “Yes, but—”

  Maude slapped her hand on the table, and the man was silenced. To Maude, Horace symbolized everyone and everything in the Highlands, and she would say her piece whether he liked it or not.

  “You gathered the orange dust,” she said. “Something that those in the grove have worked so hard to subdue in the face of your demands for more, more, more figs! How dare you try to harvest it to use against us!”

  “You tried to poison us,” said Horace, surprised by the accusation. This seemed to set Maude back on her heels, and he took advantage of the silent moment. “Do you deny it? Do you deny using poison against us? Men have died. There are others back in the Highlands who can barely breathe. How do you respond? They have sores on their hands and faces. What would you have us think? That you are a peaceful people?”

 
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