The peacocks seemed to spend their nights down by the river. Possibly in the apple trees. I never went down to check. They probably would have heard me coming; it would have been inconclusive.
Anyway, I meant to tell you about the robot. What was I saying? Oh yeah, the metal. It had this sheen, iridescent–guess that’s what got me started on peacocks.
So the robot was made with tiny speakers all over it, and supposedly emitted all these subsonic sounds, like wind, leaves, and sounds insects make and only other insects can hear. So it could wander around the enclosures without spooking anything.
Guess it worked, because it used to walk around in this really, slow, calm way, and none of the animals minded. There’d be a deer grazing, a mother deer, with fawns, and she’d just look up, and just when I thought she’d spring away, she didn’t. Might not have spooked the animals, but it kind of spooked me.
I got used to it, the way you get used to things working a lot with an android. And then it started picking up other odd sounds on its speakers, sounds I could hear. Static, hums, high screechy whistles, and, once, when we were working together to re-contour some of the erosion breaks along the lake road, what I could have sworn was the “don’t expect to see the sunrise,” spoken with this accent like the scientists in the programs have, like someone who’s spoken Math all their life.
I dropped my shovel. The robot kept digging, at least until it noticed I’d stopped. Then it did that head-tilt triangulation thing, checking me out in infrared and echolocation and whatever else it’s got, which always looks to me like confusion, so I said, “What was that?”
It acted like it didn’t have a human language chipset, although I was sure those come standard. I started wondering if it wasn’t a stray signal, if it was a threat. If the robot harbored some glitch that approximated hate. The rest of the afternoon crawled.
Finally, it turned to me. “I have analyzed my utterance.” Its consonants, crickety; its vowels, river splash and burble.
It held its shovel like an ax. I expected it would bury me, or the pieces that had been me, in one of the retaining banks.
“95% chance of complete cloud cover, all day,” it said.
Pancake Land was better than Bacon Land. Bacon Land! Oh my god, the lakes of boiling fat, the stench. Wilson used to like bacon. Bacon sandwiches were listed as his favorite meal on his Facebook page, for god’s sake. Now, he hoped he would never have to eat or even smell it again. They had finally reached the portal in Bacon Land and passed through to find themselves still on Breakfast World.
In Pancake Land it was the sinkholes. The ones that had already popped meant a long, weary trek around a hemispherical hole. Some were miles in diameter. If you fell into one, it might be possible to climb out. The rough surfaces provided plenty of handholds. Might be possible, were the sinkholes not tenanted.
One of the clones had stood too close, peering into one of the first they found, and the edge had given way. The clone had made it about halfway back up the wall (the sinkhole was a small one) when something caught hold of his leg. The clone had struggled for a moment, then abruptly stopped moving and, a few moments later, simply melted into the surface. Soon there was no sign the clone had ever been there.
Nascent holes were much more dangerous. They were concealed under subtle domes in the irregular pancake surface. The bigger the cavity underneath, the gentler the slope above. Newly popped sinkholes were already occupied, but their deadly tenants (whatever they were) were slow to react. One member of the party made it out alive from the second breakthrough, though she left part of her foot behind. It took two more breakthroughs and more loss of life before the survivors realized that the caps were springier than other parts of the pancake surface.
As they toiled on toward the next portal they encountered fresh horrors: steaming rivers of molten butter; a viscous red fluid that pursued them relentlessly until they managed to trick it into a tremendous sinkhole; and fantastical white mountains that were so unstable a heavy footfall could unleash a deadly cream flow.
Finally, the portal was in sight. Its eldritch glow was by now so familiar the pulsing arch seemed like home. Wilson broke into a run, but stopped abruptly when Jordan screamed. She screamed and screamed, pointing at the sky. Wilson looked up. His voice joined hers as gigantic metal pillars plunged toward them.
“The Diner! By all that’s holy, the Diner cometh!”
Two elephants carved from a black wood stand on the counter alongside a card advertising Gonella Baking Company Italian beef dogs and a small stack of flyers for Triple-A. Each elephant wears on its forehead an index card with the words ‘For Sale – $100′ in faded red ink. The handwriting is cursive, feminine, neat.
As I cover my brats with ketchup, I notice the elephants seem angry. Their eyes, inlaid disks of unpolished silvery metal located on the sides of their heads, hold a rage that threatens to ignite them, to send them marching up and down the lunchcounter, setting the flyers ablaze in an advertising apocalypse as they trumpet righteous fire. But why? Is it the plight of their great brothers and sister in Africa? Or is it simply because they have cards taped to their heads?
I remove the cards, peeling back the tape with great care, then prop them up along the elephants. It doesn’t seem to help. All I have done is attract their attention. Are their trunks quivering, their feet readying themselves to stampede?
I throw a dollar beside my half-eaten brats and step outside. Outside in the August sunshine, a car rolls by, metal hubcaps flashing. Behind me, I can feel the weight of elephant eyes watching me go.
A prince put an apple on the orchard wall by the river. He told the apple, “Wait here until I get back.”
He didn’t come back. A bird ate the apple and dropped a seed on the riverbank, where it did what seeds do best.
The third king of the Two Lands camped under the apple tree, on his way to a campaign in the East.
The Emperor of All Between the Rivers rode under the apple tree. He took one heavy, yellow apple in his heavy, ringed hand, and kept riding.
The twelfth Queen of the Three Oceans hung a target from the apple tree. The Queen hit the target, but an assassin had better aim.
A boat came down the river. A young woman stepped out of it and came to the dying tree.
She bowed to it.
“Thank you for waiting,” she said. She picked the last apple and ate it, swallowing one seed. She waited until she was sure. Then she said, “When you are born, we will come back here and plant a tree.”