Escape Pod 658: Beatrix Released

Show Notes

Termination Shock
Termination Shock

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Beatrix Released

By Shaenon K. Garrity

The lichen in the cupboard has at last begun to sing.  It sings in two-part harmony, bel canto, essaying a faultless duet with itself.  What a strange and lovely fairy!  I am convinced more and more that my earlier theory was correct, that the lichen is a bipartite organism comprising both fungus and an algae or bacterium.  A remarkable symbiosis, distinct I believe from any recognized taxonomy.  The love its halves sing to one another is profound enough to make one blush, and I soon retreated to the far end of the room to sketch my collection of English mice in the bone cabinet.  Papa and Mamma have allowed me to keep a few childhood specimens in my room again, to be used for art lessons only.

Dinner party tonight.  All the MPs got a clinical dissection, it was lively.  Papa and Grandpapa are appalled by Gladstone’s capitulation to the Irish Free Staters.  I agree entirely.  If it were me I’d turn them all out with a thrashing.  When the guests moved to the drawing room for dessert and coffee Mamma suggested I retire, as the conversation was likely to get too intellectual for a girl like myself.

(Speaking of conversation: I’ve decided to continue this diary in a new code.  The previous simple substitution code was v. solvable, and the thought of Mamma reading my less charitable observations was keeping me up at night.  She will go through my things!  Besides it is good mental exercise to practice a new writing system.)

A few new faces among the dinner guests.  One gentleman with an amusing gait, stiff and precise, like a spider.  He specifically resembles the Pholcus phalangioides or Daddy long-legs.  The cause of the distinctive perambulatory motion of spiders is hydraulic pressure, which assists them in flexing their limbs.  The cause of the distinctive perambulatory motion of the dinner guest is unknown.

Went to the Royal Academy to see the summer painting exhibition.  Mamma’s suggestion.  She and Papa have, I think, agreed to encourage my artistic interest.  It may prove to be an outlet for those fits of imagination I cannot suppress, so long as I keep my sketches private.

A wretched show of work.  Colors very bad.  Washed-out soapy backgrounds seem to be the fashion and all the complexions are too pink.  Absolutely no Englishman knows how to draw a horse.

The spider gentleman was at the gallery.  He seemed about to approach me when old Mrs. Winchell and her sister flanked and penned him as efficiently as sheepdogs.  Poor man.  I don’t know what he was there for, it wasn’t to view the art.  I watched him stand facing Richard Ansdell’s latest for a good half hour and it was the dullest of them all.

Tomorrow we leave for summer holiday at Lake Windermere.  Spent the evening saying farewell to Spot the spaniel, my mice, my tank of fish, my snails and salamander, my lizards, and my dear rabbit.  In the depths of my soul I must admit the Lagomorpha are vermin, but oh, what charming vermin they are despite their common manners.  I have trained Benjamin in a few simple tricks (hopping over a stick, beating a small drum) though he never will perform when one wants him to.

Arrived at the lake after the most awful drive.  A relief to get into boots and out into the fresh air.  Mamma gave me stern looks, but I brandished my watercolors and promised to do nothing more unseemly than hike my skirts to get over the occasional mud puddle.

Bouquets of fungus everywhere, the most remarkable shapes and colors.  By next month they should be in their glory.  Found promising specimens for transporting into pots; dissected others to study spore formation.  Am keeping my work away from Mamma and Papa, lest they disapprove, but I think it safe.

Grandpapa showed me a fairy ring, quite large.  Examining one, there is no mystery to the enlarging ring.  The funguses grow from the mycelium, not the spore direct, and as the subterranean fungus spreads outward it sends up mushrooms along its outermost perimeter.  When I explained to Grandpapa he said he was sorry it was not fairies after all, and I am too much a Blue Stocking for a girl of sixteen.  I don’t know what he was about.  Of course it was fairies that made the ring.  There are fairies of science too.

Sketching milk caps and chanterelles (Lactarius deliciosus, Cantharellus cibarius) with abandon.

Very shaken today.  But I must put my thoughts in order.

Clear morning like a good Gainsborough when he doesn’t let his colors go flat.  Climbed a hill with easel and watercolors, then settled in for a day of sketching.  Sparrows had conquered the hill and sent up regiments to mob the poor disorganized robins.  They are ruffians, the sparrows, but their conversation clever.

Was deep into a study of the kitchen gardens below when a rustle of grass interrupted me.  Not eight steps away stood the spider gentleman.

“I thought I saw something white up here on the grass,” he said.

“My easel,” I said.  He looked wrong in this landscape, as if cut out of a newspaper and pasted in.  “Are you visiting Windermere?”

“You’re the Potters’ girl, am I right?  I heard your family has rented the castle here.  Out-of-the-way place, isn’t it?”

“We enjoy nature.”

“So it would seem.  The Potters used to summer every year in Scotland.  Perthshire, as I recall.”  He stepped forward.  His gait was like a spider’s, but his face was Vulpes vulpes, pure fox.  “That ended suddenly.”

“Papa says one meets a better class of people at an English resort.”  Though I’m beginning to doubt his opinion, I didn’t say.

“Coincidentally, during your last Perthshire holiday there was a dreadful accident in that area.  A railway bridge collapsed, taking ninety people with it.”

“That was three years ago.”

“And will be remembered for a very long time.  What did not get into the papers, Miss Potter, was the discovery of claw marks, impossibly long and deep, on the collapsed girders.  Also strange plant life in the vicinity.  Venomous flowers, illuminated mushrooms—deeply peculiar business, all of it.”

“Mushrooms are fungus, not plant.”

His henhouse smile widened.  “It took three years to find you, you see.  We hardly knew what we were looking for.  Even when we began to investigate the Potters, we thought it might have been the work of your father, or your brother—”

I knocked over my easel.  Tubes of lemon and umber tumbled down the hill.  “Leave Bertram alone!  He did nothing!”

“Of course not.  Your brother is a bright but thoroughly ordinary schoolboy.  You, on the other hand… It was you, wasn’t it, Miss Potter?”  His eyes shone.  “What exactly were you working on up there?”

My head was ringing with familiar songs.  I screamed to drown them out.  “I am nothing—I am unremarkable—I do not think those thoughts!”

Evidently I ran down the hill and away, for here I am in my room.  I have swept my fungal specimens into the rubbish.  Naturalism is too dangerous.  I should not have indulged myself, but the land here calls so sweetly.

I did not tell Mother and Father about Mr. Fox Spider, not shall I.

A sleepless night.  Rose with a new and terrifying resolution.  Walked to the village on the pretense of picking up groceries and new paints.  A few timid questions to shopkeepers revealed that Mr. Fox Spider, patronymic Robertson, rented lodgings in town shortly before our arrival.  He is a quiet man who has yet to stand his round at the pub.

I was quite bold knocking at his door.  He started when he saw me.  “Miss Potter!  Did you come here alone?”

“Yes, sir.  No one knows I’m here.”

He unfolded his long frame to full height.  “You’re not afraid to come to a strange man’s quarters unescorted?”

“Of course not, Mr. Robertson.  You’re a policeman.”

“Well spotted.”

“It’s just a matter of looking carefully.”

“At the moment I’m seconded to Scotland Yard.”  He showed a badge.  “And my name isn’t really Robertson, but I imagine you guessed that as well.”

His rented room was shabby, but without a pin out of place.  In fact one would think no one lived there at all.  “Yes.  Well, sir.  I wanted to tell you that you were right.  All the…irregularities in Perthshire.  They were my doing.”

His eyes widened.  I understood how an amoeba feels under the microscope, or a frog under the scalpel.

“So I’m turning myself in.”

He stared, then barked a laugh.  “Turn yourself in?  No, no, Miss Potter, you misunderstand me.  I didn’t come to arrest you.  I came to recruit you.”

I hear Mamma and Papa moving about downstairs.  When they come up they will expect my lamp to be out, so I must continue my diary tomorrow.

Found a secluded spot on the riverbank to write.  Events are getting ahead of my pen.

Of course I told Mr. F. Spider I could not possibly resume the sort of tinkering that led to Perthshire.  It took a year of confinement for my parents to drive the imagination out of me.  I am now calm and ordinary.  I do not pursue projects of a scientific flavor, nor do I read books or associate with people who might put ideas in my head.

“But you can’t avoid those ideas, can you?” he said.  “You’ve been visiting natural history museums and Kew Gardens.  You browse bookstores to leaf through biology texts.  And so far you’ve spent your holiday dissecting mushrooms.”

“You’ve been following me?”  My face grew warm.

“A hazard of the job.  Miss Potter, I’ll be clear.  I belong to a department that searches for people of unusual genius.  People like yourself.”

“You’ve found others?”

“Ah, there’s the scientific curiosity.  Rarely.  And very few of those are…stable enough to serve Queen and country.”

There was, he explained, a crisis.  A pocket of Irish rebels on English soil, stockpiling explosives toward an attack on the Queen’s life.  The police had located the murderers’ headquarters, a remote house in Middlesex, but had no evidence for a warrant and no way to approach the grounds without alerting suspicion.

“These men must be stopped,” he said.  “I think you can stop them.”


“I’ll leave that up to you.  Request any equipment and materials you wish.  There’s an old farmhouse across the river we can set up as a laboratory.”

Ideas swarmed in my ears.  With terrible effort I caught them, wriggling, and shoved them down.  But what a simple problem, with so many solutions…  “No!  I don’t do those experiments anymore!”

“Not even to save the Queen?”

“It… it’s not safe.”

“No,” he said.  “It’s not.”

I let myself out.  The chain rattled as I yanked the door open.  All the long walk home, as sternly as I glared at my hands, they refused to stop shaking.  Whether out of fear, or excitement at the prospect of once more wielding a scalpel, I dare not ask myself.

I have not spoken to Mr. Fox Spider since.  Spent today indoors and pretended it was the poor weather.  What am I to do?

Bright silver morning with scarves of last night’s rain tumbling from the eaves.  Heard the gardener cursing the earth in ways that would no doubt singe my ears if I understood Scots Gaelic, so ventured out to investigate.  An armada of snails in the lettuces, Cornu aspersum, large as chestnuts and as hungry as they are edible.

“Rain brings them out,” said the gardener, not that he needed to tell me.  I used to love collecting snails after a rain shower, before scientific expeditions, however small, became dangerous.  It would not be so dangerous, I thought, to take a moment to admire, with an artist’s eye, the marbled patterns on their shells.

I was wrong.

Instead of the shells, I found myself drawn to the glistening track that followed each gastropod like a bridal veil.  (Snails are said to mate for life, though I have not tested the theory, and being hermaphrodites each must wear both veil and collar.)  The slime is more useful than first glance suggests, protecting the snail’s skin from desiccation as well as aiding reproduction.  Snails are amorous fairies, taking shameless advantage of their double complement of marital equipment, hence the ample (but inappropriate to contemplate except for science) need for lubrication.

An old line of thought, regarding the use of this secretion as a medium for conducting electrical signals, reopened and crossed with a recent idea about fungal spores.  A thrilling possibility!  A wonder no one thought of it before.

I should not pursue it.  Mother and Father worked so hard to make me ordinary, or as close to ordinary as could be managed.  This would spoil everything.

The last time I let myself experiment freely, ninety people died.

But this time I would be in control.  No wild animals, plants, or funguses running loose.  No one need die, not even the criminals plotting against the Queen.

They might die.  I can’t predict all outcomes.

Her Majesty’s life would be saved.

It would be a boon to science.

It would be so interesting.

Things I will need at the farmhouse:

A clean dissection table and vivisection equipment: scalpels of several sizes, forceps, bone saw or skull saw (the latter for preference), lithotome, trephine.

Garden trays, pots, and a good compost mixed with sawdust.

Any basic chemistry set, with test tubes.

Sketchbooks and pencils for record keeping.

A camera and plates, for same.


Gutta-percha tubing, with whatever apparatus necessary for electrical supply.

Gloves (surgical and gardening).

A quantity of field or wood mice, or dormice.  No white mice, please.

Several larger animals, should the tests on mice succeed: any common varieties of rabbits, cats, small dogs, fowl, or waterfowl will serve.

Feed for animals.

A mop.

Passed this list to Mr. Fox Spider at a stile just outside the village, a spot not visible from the road.  It will serve as a meeting place until the farmhouse is ready.  I was evidently in a state, for he stared long at me before reading.  Checked the mirror when I got back to my room and was taken aback.  My cheeks were open to the suspicion of rogue and my smile, which I had no idea I was wearing, shows incisors.  I must be more conscious of my personal presentation lest I raise suspicions.  Think of the Queen.

At any rate the items, according to Mr. F.S., should be no trouble.  The camera was a selfish request.  I’ve been wanting to learn photography for ages and Papa won’t let me use his.

Outside the farmhouse at dusk, watching a flock of sheep shoulder one another over the ridge.  My routine now is to hike out in the morning on the fiction of a sketching or painting expedition, set up my equipment, and work until the sun begins to set.  Mamma watches me with a gimlet eye but says nothing.

Work goes well, but the relevant details are in my research journal so no need to reproduce here.  When the sheep pass over the ridge I will get up, clean the blood away, change out of my laboratory skirts, and begin the long walk home fairly dancing.

Everything sings.

Mr. Fox Spider arrived in the afternoon with two other men from his department.  They were stout where he is spindly, but all visibly of the same genus.

I showed them the dormice first, having the most confidence in their good deportment.  There are three coming along exceptionally, whom I have named Winken, Blinken, and Nod.  All three were in a straw-lined crate, at work on nests, when we entered the laboratory.  They looked charming, their fur having mostly regrown to cover the scars on their small scalps.

“At attention,” I said.  The mice lined up and bowed prettily.

“Cute,” said one of the stout men, “but I hope you brought us out here for more than a flea circus, McCubbin.”

I wondered if McCubbin was Mr. Fox Spider’s real name, or another nom de justice.  Perhaps he never had a name at all.

“Go ahead, Miss Potter,” said Mr. Fox Spider.

I set a small blackboard and several splinters of chalk in the crate.  “Miss Winken, how are you today?”

Winken snatched a piece of chalk in her jaws and scurried to the blackboard.  DOIG WELL MISS she wrote.

“My God,” said the man who had asked for more than a flea circus.

“There must be a trick to it,” said the other.

Winken continued to write, spelling out a halting tale of Nod’s bad behavior that morning.  He will tease the slower mice in their cages.

“No trick,” I said.  “Just the work of teaching them to read.  Please feel free to ask them about it directly.”

“Are you telling me they understand what we’re saying now?”

“I fancy they do, sir.  It’s not complicated.”

The man leaned over the crate.  “And what do you think of us?”

The mice looked at each other.  Nod went for the blackboard.  TALL ONE BRINGS US SWEETS, he wrote.  YOU GENROUS LIKE TALL ONE?

“You eat too much already,” I said.  “You’ll give yourself a stomachache.”

Nod chirruped hopefully.  Blinken picked up chalk.  IGNOR HIM.  YOU VERY NICE MEN.

Winken nodded and bowed.

“What you are seeing,” said Mr. Fox Spider, “is the fruit of Miss Potter’s experiments in the uplifting of dumb animals.”

“Well, I’ve made them able to talk like people.  I don’t know how ‘uplifting’ that is.”  But I could not help warming to the subject.  “The process combines surgical operations on the brain, the implantation of a hybrid Ophiocordyceps fungus which parasitizes the nervous system, and the topical application of a conducive medium derived from—”

The first stout man waved my words away.  “Leave it for the specialists.  As amazing as this performance is, I thought Miss Potter was brought on to invent…well, a weapon.”

“A living weapon,” said the other.  “I saw those claw marks on the rail bridge.”

My breath caught.  Mr. Fox Spider came to my rescue.  “Miss Potter is adamantly against any more of that kind of work.  These intelligent animals are designed to win conflicts without violence.  Isn’t that right?”

I nodded, grateful to be relieved from speaking for the moment.

“Imagine,” said Mr. Fox Spider, “a network of animal spies that can go anywhere undetected.”  He went on to paint a picture of my mice deployed under floorboards, behind pantry doors, to the innermost chambers of power.  Some of his imagined missions were quite beyond anything we had discussed.

When he began to sketch a mouse invasion of the Winter Palace in Russia, I interrupted.  “Of course you wouldn’t send these mice.”

The whole party, mice included, turned.  “Why not?” said one of the stout men.

“They’re dormice, sir.  Wouldn’t it look suspicious?  Common house mice would blend in nicely.”

He relaxed.  “Can this…procedure be done with other animals?”

Mr. Fox Spider couldn’t possibly smile more widely without the top of his head coming off.  “I think, Miss Potter, you ought to show them the barnyard.”

Ruskin and Gaskell, the ducks, appeared first from around the side of the barn.  I bit my lip.  They had tried to dress themselves and failed again.  Gaskell had petticoats wrapped around her neck in a tangle, while Ruskin limped along with one webbed foot stuck through a waistcoat.  Other articles of clothing, few clean enough to be recognizable, trailed behind them.  On another day I would have found it funny, but I had been so hoping to make a good impression.

“Ruskin,” I said, “where is your hat?”

“The pond, miss,” said Ruskin.  There was a thump behind me, which turned out to be the second stout man fainting.  Why he should have been overwhelmed by a duck speaking, which a great many birds can do without surgical intervention, rather than by the cogitating dormice which were far more difficult to create (unadulterated dormice being as a rule not very clever), I don’t know.  Mr. Fox Spider dragged him into the shade while I introduced the other gentleman to Ruskin and Gaskell, Pickles and Brighton the cats, and Antisthenes the terrier.

Overall I think the meeting went well.  Only Pickles and Antisthenes were fully dressed, and even they forgot their gloves.  But Antisthenes answered all questions and shook hands politely.  There was a neat joke when one of the men complimented his manners and he answered with a line of Shakespeare I taught him: “O, ’tis a foul thing when a cur cannot keep himself in all companies!”  Brighton was shy and washed his paws, but when prodded with a bit of dried fish he described all the ways he had of getting into a house without detection.

“Did I really complain these weren’t weapons?” said the first stout man.  “They are beyond weapons.  These animals will revolutionize war.”

“They’ll revolutionize everything,” said the second man.  He sounded less delighted.  “But can they be trusted to carry out complex missions?”

“Not alone,” said Mr. Fox Spider.  “Miss Potter, if you could put your cap on?”

We had rehearsed this.  It was as crucial to the project as the animals, if not as good a spectacle.  I fitted the pasilanlinic-sympathetic compass, freshly greased with medium, to my head.  The greased wires brushed my scalp, tingling not unpleasantly with traces of escargotic commotion.

The animals’ thoughts, small and tart as gooseberries, tumbled at once into my mind.  They were quite used to my presence in this mode and paid me no attention.

“Think of a command for the animals,” said Mr. Fox Spider, “and whisper it to Miss Potter.”

After a pause, the first stout man leaned toward me.  I shivered at his breath in my ear, being unaccustomed to such a sensation.  His suggestion was simple enough.  I closed my eyes and sent a silent command.

When I opened my eyes, the animals were dancing ring-a-ring-a-roses, pretty as a nursery picture, with Gaskell at the center.  They were not so good at holding hands, having paws and wings to manage, but I kept them in a perfect circle.

What the first stout gentleman said, I shan’t write even in code.

“I thought of this as a way to keep them under control,” I said.  “I’ve had trouble with experiments going wild before.”

There was considerably more conversation before I had to leave for home, but none of it important.  If I write it down later, it will be only for the memory exercise.  Meanwhile I must try to get a few hours’ sleep.

Going home very suddenly.  Will write more later.

Yesterday morning, Mamma announced at breakfast that we were cutting our holiday short.  Mamma and Papa had already packed their things.  Grandpapa was not at all satisfied by Papa’s explanation of a work emergency in London, he said he’d just started his fresh-air cure and now the whole thing would be undone by smog.  I complained of having to abandon my watercolors.  Mamma asked me where, if I’d been working so diligently, these watercolors were.

How much she and Papa know about my activities at the farmhouse I have no idea, but clearly I wasn’t careful enough.  Lack of care is a fatal flaw in any scientist or artist.  I ought to feel guilty for deceiving them, and I suppose I do.  But the experiment!  My animals, my Inventions!  I had forgotten how work sweeps out the burrows of the mind, clearing new and more enticing passages, urging me to keep delving.  When I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever, and settles on the queerest things, worse than queer sometimes.  But so beautiful in their song.

I am sorry for causing Mamma and Papa worry.  But I am not at all sorry they packed me home ahead of schedule.  My dear Inventions are ready, and London is quite close to Middlesex.  I will be able to steal away to stop the Irish criminals with, I fancy, not much trouble.

Benjamin pretended not to remember me when I got home.  Or perhaps he really has forgotten me, he’s only a rabbit after all.  Once he has finished nibbling my peace offering of a carrot, I will find a way to telegraph Mr. Fox Spider and make the necessary adjustments to our plans.

Later.  It is settled.

Fairly buzzing with impatience.  When will Friday night come?  I do my best to keep my hands busy and my mind off the impending adventure.  My first adventure.

I might have been frightened of it, once.  But I won’t be alone.

9:00 P.M.  As far as my parents are concerned I will be spending the night with Uncle Henry after a visit to the Royal Academy.  I regret the upset to Mamma and Papa when the truth comes out, but the experiment has started and cannot be stopped.

Riding a black coach to Middlesex.  I carry nothing but this diary and the contents of my pockets.  I wish I’d brought a currant bun, it is a longer ride than I expected.

10:30 P.M. (or thereabouts.)  Middlesex.  The driver ordered me to disembark at a lonely stable, darkened from the outside.  I nearly lost my nerve going up to the door.  Then I heard Antisthenes, with that funny creak in his voice, cry, “Miss is here!”

They all greeted me: the ducks, the cats, and of course Antisthenes.  “Happy to see miss,” he said.  He fairly wagged his tail off, the dear thing.

Inside the stable was warm and lit by lanterns.  Mr. Fox Spider detached himself from a knot of men and loped forward.

“Where are my mice?” I asked.

“We agreed they wouldn’t be needed for this mission.”

“But I wanted to see them.”  I composed myself.  “I’m sorry.  I should be professional.”

Some muttering passed between the other men.  “The cap,” said Mr. F.S.  “It has a range of three or four furlongs?”

“This one, yes.”

“That’s fine.  We’re not far from our target.”

I fondled Pickles behind the ears.  She purred and sniffed at my skirt.  “Miss went away.  Miss shouldn’t go away, miss.”

“I’m here now.  Do you understand what you have to do tonight?”

“Of course,” she said with a dismissive flick of an ear.  “Want mouse.  Want milk.  Want presents.”

“After this, you shall have all the presents you like.”

A man stepped forward with my cap.  Having not seen it in some time, I was dismayed by its primitive construction.  Never mind, it would do.  I put it on and tucked a stray lock of hair under the wires.

“For Queen and country,” I said.

 11:00 P.M. (or thereabouts.)   Antisthenes smelled the house before it rose into view over the moor.  “Pipe smoke and mutton,” he barked.  “Men, men, men!”

“Don’t speak,” I whispered in the stable, passing the command through the cap.  “Just observe.”

The two cats crept up behind them.  At my thought, Pickles turned her gaze to the house.  He took better to telepathic suggestion than Brighton, who was at the moment distracted by the rustle of field mice.  Through the cats’ eyes the night was clear as day: no, clearer.  A remarkable sensation, though no less so than the whip of wind through the feathers of my ducks overhead.

“They’re at the house,” I said to Mr. Fox Spider.

“How many inside?”

It was no difficult problem for the nose of a terrier.  “Three.  All men.”

Mr. F.S. glanced at the other men.  A nod passed between them.  “Proceed inside.”

At my silent command, Ruskin and Gaskell landed on the roof.  Pickles and Brighton climbed a drainpipe to the second floor and slid through an open window.  While Brighton investigated the upper floor, finding little but dust and the old trails of mice, Pickles crept downstairs.  The three men, gathered around a sickly fire in the parlor, were easily avoided.  At my direction, she opened the back door in the kitchen and let Antisthenes in.

“Nothing on the second floor,” I said.

Another round of nods between the men.  “What about the ground floor?” said Mr. F.S.

“The assassins are there.  We have to move carefully.”

“Why?” said a man.  “All they’ll see is a stray cat or dog that got in to raid the kitchen.”  Several of his companions guffawed, but without humor.

“But they could hurt them—Oh!”


“There’s a cellar.”

An alert silence.  “Which animal is at the cellar door?” said Mr. F.S.

“Antisthenes.  I’ll leave him to stand guard and send Pickles down.  She has the eyes for it.”

Mr. F.S. nodded.  “Proceed.”

There was no mistaking the hoard in the basement.  Crates of dynamite and barrels of gunpowder, enough for a second Guy Fawkes.  “Explosives,” I whispered.  “So many.”

“Now detonate them,” said a voice near my human ear.

My eyes snapped open.  It was the same warm room, the same knot of men, the same spindly shadow I’d come to know as Fox Spider.  But something had changed.  There was an electricity in the air I hadn’t noticed before.  Under my skin throbbed a song in a minor key.

“Detonate the gunpowder,” the man repeated.

I found my voice.  “The danger to my animals…”

“You don’t have to do it,” said Mr. Fox Spider.

“She must!” said another man.  “We agreed it would be the final test…”

A jacknife blur, and Mr. Fox Spider had him by the collar.  I had never seen him so fierce.  Lycosidae now, the wolf spider.  “Do not press her.

“I’ll do it,” I said.  For the Queen.

Antisthenes passed kitchen matches to Pickles.  She had some difficulty scraping them against the stone floor of the cellar, but soon enough one lit.  At my bidding, she dropped it in a pile of old newspapers, then I sent all the animals in the house running.

It was fast, so fast, the fire.

The conflagration tore through my mind, channeled like a spring flood through five sets of senses.  With it came a hot slash of pain and I realized, to my horror, I had forgotten the ducks on the roof.

1:00 A.M. (or thereabouts.)  Gaskell is lost.  I felt her death on the moors.  Mr. Fox Spider puts on solicitous gestures, but everything is out of tune.  On the horizon I can see the farmhouse burning.  The men inside died as Gaskell did.  How did I so glibly sentence them?  It is the worst and deepest madness, that which calls itself cold sense.

Ruskin asks for Gaskell and does not seem to understand any explanation.  He is, after all, only a duck.  The men have allowed him to fly back to see for himself.  I think it not a good idea, but the voice I gave him pleads so.

Home again.  I was not allowed to take my surviving animals.  Mr. Fox Spider explained that I had no place for them, my parents would find them and what if the newspapers got wind?  He was perfectly logical.

I have a fine mind for logic myself.  Therefore I dropped the issue, and left Timothy behind.

Timothy is, or was, Micromys minutus, the harvest mouse, the smallest mammal native to Britain.  Perhaps he is something else now.  He can speak, and in intellect he far surpasses Winkin, Blinken, and Nod, my dormice.  I have learned such a lot since making them.

I hope my mice are well.  If the men were not kind to them I shall be angry.

I made Timothy to keep busy in the long week before the Middlesex adventure.  I carried him in my pocket for companionship.  It was a wrench to leave him with those men, but he is a brave little fellow.  Even now he hides and listens, so cleverly, and feels for the vibrations of my other animals.

The cap I made that week is, likewise, much better than my previous effort.  I can keep in touch with Timothy over a number of leagues, in fact we have yet to test the limit of our connection.  And so I wait, and paint Lepiota friesii, the Spotted Dapperling, and listen.

Pappa held another dinner party, it was quite satisfactory.  Mr. Fox Spider was among the guests.  At the first opportunity he took me aside.

“I have bad news,” he said.  “Your animals.  They’re missing.”

“I know.”

“Whether they escaped or were stolen, I have no…” His eyes flashed.  There was the familiar fox.  “You know?”

“I arranged it.  I fancy they’ve done enough for their country.”

He concealed his rage beautifully, like a gentle fall of leaves over an ant swarm.  “You’re not yourself, Miss Potter.”

“No?  Oh, perhaps not.  Perhaps I’m not at all who I was.”

“Tell me how I can make things right.”

“You can’t.  Not after Gaskell and Ruskin.”

“Gaskell and…?  Oh, the ducks.  You know how very sorry I am for the accident…”

“Yes.  You even agreed to let Ruskin fly back to see Gaskell’s body in the moors.  That was when we saw the wagon behind the farmhouse.  In the excitement, we hadn’t noticed it before.”

He froze.  He was prey now, that Mr. Fox.  “The wagon.”

“A tinkers’ wagon.  Red with big yellow wheels.  Birds see the primary colors vividly, it turns out, even in the dark.  I’d like to make a further study, if I ever have time.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with…”

“Of course you do.  You’re very clever.”  I took a deep breath.  “Those men in the farmhouse weren’t assassins, were they?  They were just vagabonds.  A group of Gypsies taking advantage of an empty house, not suspecting it had been left that way on purpose, bait for a trap.”

“Now, now, Miss Potter.  Whatever are you suggesting?”

“There never was any plot against the Queen.  You set the whole thing up to convince me to make weapons for you.  The farmhouse was my final test, wasn’t it?  Your men said so that night.”

Now his manner turned kindly and concerned.  “And you convinced yourself of all this, based on seeing an old wagon?  You poor thing.  Miss Potter, I fear I pushed you too far, turned you to hysterics…”

“It is not—”  Several guests turned at my raised voice.  I smiled and moved to another room.  A calculated minute later, Mr. Fox Spider appeared at my side.  “It is not just the wagon!” I hissed.  “The wagon only raised my suspicions.  I’ve had ears in your offices ever since Middlesex.  I know everything.”

Silence from my companion.

“You made me kill innocent men to test my animals’ power.  Since then you’ve had vivisectionists kill Pickles and the mice, trying to learn their secrets.  Gaskell, Brighton, and poor Antisthenes you’ve allowed to live, in the hope of breeding them.  You’ve learned little, of course.  That’s why you’re here, to convince me to work for you again.”

“Miss…”  A long sigh.  “I’m sorry, Miss Potter.  Truly I am.  You must understand my duty is to the Crown.  If I deceive in the name of the Empire, it’s because I pledged on my life to do so.”

“You…” I had more to say, but my throat tightened and my vision blurred.  “You made me kill,” I said at last.  “You dissected my animals.”

“I’m so sorry.”

I looked up through tears.  “Not as sorry as you will be.”

Again he fell silent.

“My animals, the surviving ones, have been freed.  My friend Timothy helped them.  He’s told them everything.”

From the sitting room, Mamma called for me.  I wiped hastily at my eyes.  “What happens to you and your men next, Mr. Fox, is entirely up to them.  Perhaps they will be more forgiving than I.  But they are, after all, only animals.”

As I parted, he muttered, “’Mr. Fox’?”

He left in a hurry.  As I said, a satisfactory dinner party.

After dinner I returned to teaching tricks to Benjamin Bunny.  His mind has at last comprehended gooseberries.  He can jump a stick, sit up, and beat a small drum.  I sketch him in the firelight and am content.

About the Author

Shaenon K. Garrity

Shaenon K. Garrity is a cartoonist best known for the webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse. Her prose fiction has appeared in publications including Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Drabblecast, and the Unidentified Funny Objects anthologies. She lives in Berkeley with a cat and two men of varying sizes.

Find more by Shaenon K. Garrity


About the Narrator

Katherine Inskip

Katherine Inskip

Katherine Inskip is assistant editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own.  You can find more of her stories at Motherboard, Cast of Wonders, the Dunesteef and Luna Station Quarterly, and forthcoming from Abyss & Apex.

Find more by Katherine Inskip

Katherine Inskip