Chapter One of The Carnivorous Forest by Dale L. Sproule
Sound enveloped her, a squealing, chattering roar that sounded like someone sitting beside a waterfall and stirring a jarful of cicadas with a huge metal spoon.
The chaperones encouraged the cadre of potential recruits to join hands so they wouldn’t get separated. Even Psalma found that insulting and, having just turned fifteen, she was the youngest of the group being led in a long chain through a vast central foyer filled with wonders.
Her imagination could never have conjured this massive menagerie of machines, clanging and whirring, ringing and buzzing, flashing and twirling; wheeled toys moving autonomously on twisty tracks that meandered along the walls and down the halls past machines with glowing facades that would dispense their contents at the push of a button; electric lights of different colours and sizes, in radiances ranging from twinkling to blinding. There were countless wooden boxes filled with still usable nuts, bolts, cogs, wires, and filaments.
The noise grew impossibly louder as they progressed, strange hums and rumbles; beeps and bloops; buzzes and screeches, until they came to an area filled with clocks, ticking and chiming, measuring and timing. Psalma had seen clocks before – they’d even started using them at the Fleshhomes to measure client visits. But here were clocks of every imaginable size. Of all the things the Executrix had invented, these gadgets that gave a physical face to time itself were the most arcane and mystical.
The longer they were immersed in the cacophony, the more easily the sounds separated into smaller and smaller component noises. At one point, she heard a man’s gruff voice, distinct from the strident bark of the woman he was talking to and realized they were talking to her but couldn’t make out what they were saying. Both wore white smocks and stood in front of a humming machine on a tabletop. Seeing small belts and cogs spinning in its guts made Psalma’s own stomach feel queasy. The woman fit a black plate with a hole in the centre onto a spindle jutting from the rectangular gear housing. When the disc itself began to spin, the man lifted some sort of lever and set it carefully onto the whirling surface. Trying to determine their intent, Psalma strained to hear their conversation, but they were drowned out by the voice of a singer who came out of nowhere.
Psalma stood straighter and looked around, but could see neither the singer nor any of the accompanists who had struck up a rhythm behind the strident chorus about never getting back together. Then the singer began to stutter, “Back together, gether, gether, gether, gether, gether, gether…” When the woman lifted the lever from the disc and the music stopped abruptly.
Psalma rolled her eyes, embarrassed it had taken her so long to make the connection between the disc and the music. She stepped toward the music-making machine.
“Is the music trapped inside the plate?” Psalma asked, peering at the shiny surface.
“In a sense,” the woman explained. “There are carvings on it, so fine and intricate you barely see them.”
The man shook his head and laughed. “The carvings make the music. This is just one of the many recording devices the Executrix has rediscovered. The simplest one to make with our current resources.”
The woman took a step toward her. “If you join our team, you can learn the science behind it. You can help bring all these ancient mysteries back to life.”
“I would love to, but…I’m not…I mean I can’t….” Psalma wished she could unsay the sentence she had begun, or at least revoke the enthusiasm she had said it with. Explaining herself would involve telling these people she was pledged as a courtesan until her union debt was paid. No less a legendary lady of the mattress than Mimsey Maud herself, had warned, “Never enlighten anyone who doesn’t know where you’re from or what you do. Whores get no respect in the holy city. Their politeness will turn to disgust. This ain’t the Fleshhomes, where your talents in bed and on the stage could make you a whispered legend by the time you’re 25. This is a world where penitence is a way of life.”
She was remembering Mimsy Maud’s words as the woman herself came up behind her, the hottest mimsey in Hairyson – and the one who had charted an equally blessed life for Psalma.
“Oh, there you are,” said Mimsey Maud, “we thought we’d lost you.”
They returned to the main group as one of their guides, a young woman who had introduced herself as Holly-Lou-Ya, announced, “Before we go upstairs, have a good look at these “household appliances.” They can reduce days of drudgery to a few hours of watching machines do the work for you.”
Psalma grinned sardonically as she overheard one of their group ask, “Do you have fucking machines?”
Someone else, who had found a display of machines that howled and sucked up dirt when pushed along the floor shouted, “I think we’re getting close!”
Considerable laughter and conversation ensued.
Holly-Lou-Ya smiled and took Glory’s hand, guiding her past windows that churned with soapy water; cabinets filled with ice and steam; and ovens filled with cooking food.
“An electric stove can heat up fast enough to cook food like this in minutes.” Holly-Lou-Ya plucked a plate off a countertop and waved it in front of her nose. “It’s called pizza.”
That might impress the rubes, Psalma thought, but was more diplomatic not to say aloud, but we know what pizza is. We grew up in the Fleshhomes, where the shows never stops and the ovens are always on.
As the group was rounded up, Psalma looked forlornly around at all the lobby at things she never had a chance to look at, vowing to come back at the very next opportunity. As though she read Psalma’s thoughts, Mimsey Maud reappeared, firm hand on the back of her arm and her small of her back, steering her into a stairwell where they began the long climb to the top of the Tomb.