by Chris Roberson
It was late afternoon when Archibald Chabane finally found the boy, perched high on the steel trestle of the elevated railway. From that vantage, he could look out across the intersection of 62nd St. and Hope Avenue, over the high fence into the backstage area of Bill Cody’s concession, now christened Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World.
“Mezian,” Chabane called, but over the muffled roar of the crowd in Cody’s 8,000 seat arena and the rumble of the Illinois Central Railroad engine coming up the track, he couldn’t make himself heard.
“Mezian!” Chabane repeated, cupping his hands around his mouth like a speaking-trumpet. He glanced to the south, trying to see how close the train had come. When Chabane had been a boy, watching the 4-6-0 camelback engines lumbering along the Algiers-Constantine line, he’d always been able to see the black smoke billowing up from their coal-fed furnaces from miles away. These new prometheic engines, though, produced nothing but steam, and virtually all of it used for locomotion, so the trains could been heard long before they could be seen.
Chabane leaned a hand against the nearest steel girder, and could feel the vibrations of the train’s approach.
He shouted the boy’s name once more, at the top of his lungs.
Mezian looked down, blinking, and his lips tugged up in a guilty grin. “Oh, I didn’t see you there, amin.”
Chabane had only to cross his arms over his chest and scowl, and the boy began clambering down the trestle like a monkey from a tree.
To the Americans, like Bill Cody—who’d already warned Sol Bloom to keep “his damned Algerians” away from the Wild West Show’s Indians—Archibald Chabane was Bloom’s assistant, translator, and bodyguard.
To Sol Bloom, “Archie” was just a Kabyle who’d gotten off the boat from Paris with the rest of the troupe, and threatened to throw Bloom into the waters of New York Harbor if he wasn’t more polite to the performers. Bloom had offered him a cigar and hired Chabane to be his liaison with the Algerian troupe on the spot.
To the Algerians, though, Chabane was something more. At first only their guide in a foreign land, he had become their elected amin, as much the head of their “Algerian Village” concession as if he sitting in the djemaa of a Kayble village back home.
“Careful,” Chabane warned, as Mezian swung from a steel girder. “I promised your mother I’d bring you back in one piece.”
The boy just grinned, and dropped a full five feet to the pavement, something colorful fluttering to the ground after him like a lost bird.
“Mother won’t give me a dime to get into the show,” Mezian said by way of explanation, pointing at the banners which fluttered over Cody’s concession, proclaiming THE PILOT OF THE PRAIRIE.
“Mr. Bloom has sworn it’s my hide if any of our troupe is caught drinking with Cody’s performers again,” Chabane said, arms still crossed over his chest. Many of the Algerians in the troupe were not the most observant of Muslims, and even now in the final days of Ramadan they could be found passing a flask back and forth once the day’s audience had cleared out. “If Cody catches one of us peaking at his show without paying, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
Mezian scuffed his feet against the pavement, his gaze lowered. “Sorry, amin.”
“You dropped something.” Chabane reached down and picked up the garishly-colored pamphlet that had fallen from the boy’s pocket. It was a story-paper, what the Americans called a “dime novel.” The title in oversized letters was Scientific Romance Weekly, featuring “Dane Faraday, Man of Justice, in The Electrical World of Tomorrow.” Handing it back to the boy, Chabane quirked a smile. “She won’t give you ten cents for the Wild West Show, but she lets you spend money on cheap fictions?”
The boy shrugged, slipping the folded pamphlet into his back pocket. “They’re meant to help me practice my English.” He paused, drawing himself up straight, and then in stilted tones added in English, “Hands up, the miscreant, you are the surrounded.” Switching back to French, he gave Chabane a quizzical look. “What is a ‘miscreant’?”
“It means unbeliever,” the man explained, “or infidel. A villain, in other words.” He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and gently propelled him forward. “Come along, your mother is waiting.”
As they headed up 62nd to Island Avenue, they could hear the muffled applause from the crowd inside Cody’s arena. Open only a little more than a week, and already the Wild West Show was drawing bigger crowds than all the concessions on the Midway Plaisance combined. In another two weeks the Columbian Exhibition proper would finally open to the public, and it remained to be seen whether there’d be crowds left over for any of the outside attractions.
“So your story-papers,” Chabane said, as they turned left and headed north up Island Avenue. “Are they any good?”
Mezian shrugged. “They are alright, I suppose. Not as good as the French ones I could get back home, or in Paris.”
Chabane nodded. “When I was a boy, I devoured every installment of Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Voyages I could lay hands on.”
The boy pulled a face. “Verne?” He shook his head. “Much too dry. No, give me Paul d’Ivoi’s Eccentric Voyages, any day.”
They passed 60th Street, then turned left onto the Midway Plaisance. The looming form of Ferris’s still unfinished wheel dominated the horizon, even seven blocks away. Steel-bodied automata spidered up and down it on their crab-like legs, welding girders into place, stringing high tension wires. The builders promised that it would be ready to start spinning within another week, two at the most, just in time for opening day. Chabane was less than optimistic about their predictions, but knew that if not for the automata, it would not even be that far along, and would never have been ready in time.
Chabane couldn’t help but think about the boy he’d once been, reading Verne in second-hand story-papers. Not yet Archibald Chabane of London, just Adherbal Aït Chabaâne of Dellys, reading about men who traveled beneath the waves, or across the skies, or to the moon in glorious machines. It had seemed a distant, ungraspable vision that he could scarcely hope to see. Then came the famine, and the oppression of the Kabyle at the hands of their French colonial masters, and finally the failure of Muhammed al-Muqrani’s revolt. Chabane had been too young to fight, but his father and his uncles had not, and with the revolt put down his family name had been outlawed in Algeria, never again to be spoken in the djemaa. The young Adherbal, seeing no future in his native land, had gone instead to live among the Romni, as the Kabyles, remembering the Romans of ancient times, still thought of all foreigners across the middle sea. He ran away to the north, away from the superstitions of his grandmothers and the traditions he had been taught. He had gone looking for the future, to reinvent himself in a rational world. In England he’d made a new life for himself, the bodyguard to a wealthy man, and had tried to forget the past.
In the end, though, he learned the past was something we carry with us, and can never escape. And even though the future had arrived, it had not been quite as he’d expected.
Chabane and the boy continued up the Midway, past the various concessions just shutting down for the day. Like the Wild West Show, they’d been able to open early, while work on the Columbian Exhibition was still being completed. Some of the concessions, like the Algerian Village, had been open as early as the previous summer. And like the Algerian troupe’s “exhibit,” the other concessions were all, in one way or another, caricatures of the countries they purported to represent, pantomimes of pasts that never existed. There were Irishmen in green felt, Germans in lederhosen, Lapps in fur, Turks in fezzes. But as clownish as the others often seemed, it struck Chabane that the worst indignities were always reserved for those from the African continent. Like the natives of Dahomey, only recently conquered by the French, being presented as “cannibal savages” for the amusement of American audiences. A once proud people, reduced to the level of sideshow performers.
As they neared the towering wheel, beyond which lay the Algerian concession, Chabane heard his name called. It was one of the performers from the Street in Cairo concession, which was proving the most popular of the Midway’s attractions.
“Another of our monkeys has been stolen, Chabane,” the Egyptian continued in Arabic. “You Kabyles haven’t been breaking your Ramadan fast with monkey stew, have you?”
“Keep your ruffians away from our women, Zewail,” Chabane answered, good naturedly, “and I’ll keep my people away from your monkeys.”
As they passed under the lengthening shadow of Ferris’s wheel, the Algerian Village concession coming into view, Mezian drew up short, looking behind him, a look of alarm on his face. “I’ve lost my story-paper.” He patted his pocket, craning his head around and twisting to look down over his back, as though the dime novel might be clinging to his shirt-back.
Chabane turned in a slow circle, scanning the ground at their feet, looking back the way they’d come. “You must have dropped it.”
Mezian looked up, his eyes wide. “My mother will kill me.”
Chabane gave a sympathetic smile, but before he could answer he heard the sound of footsteps fast approaching. He spun around, expecting trouble, instinctually dropping into a defensive posture, but relaxed when he saw it was only Papa Ganon, the Algerian troupe’s glass-eater.
“Amin!” Ganon shouted. “Come quickly!”
Chabane tensed once more when he saw the blood darkening the front of Papa Ganon’s burnous.
“What is it?” Chabane said, rushing forward. “Are you hurt?”
Ganon responded with a confused look, then followed Chabane’s gaze to his blood-stained front. He shook his head. “It isn’t mine, amin. There’s a stranger, badly bleeding and confused, found hiding behind the theater.”
Chabane drew his mouth into a line, and nodded. “Run along and find your mother, Mezian.” Then he started with long strides towards the Algerian theater, Papa Ganon following close behind.
The Algerian Village was almost identical to that which the troupe had originally set up in the Paris Exhibition four years before. It had been there that a young Sol Bloom had seen them, in the shadow of Eiffel’s tower, and hired them to come perform in the United States. But when the time had come to leave Paris, the troupe had been uncertain about venturing into the unknown wilds of America.
At the time, Archibald Chabane had not heard his native tongue since leaving Dellys, years before, but traveling to Paris on business he had chanced upon the troupe on the Quai d’Orsay. After a friendly meal and reminiscences about their erstwhile home, Papa Ganon had spoken for the others in begging the assistance of the worldly, mannered Chabane. Ganon had called up Kabyle tradition, which held that a Kabyle journeying abroad was obliged to come to the aid of any Kabyle in need, even at the risk of his own fortune and life.
Chabane had thought he had put such traditions behind him. But looking into the hopeful faces of the Algerian troupe, he couldn’t help but remember the sacrifices his family had made during the famine of 1867. Tradition demands that every stranger who enters a Kabyle village be treated like an honored guest, given food, lodging, whatever he requires. But even with more than ten thousand strangers from all over Algeria pouring into Dellys, not a single person died of starvation, nor had the djemaas been forced to ask aid from the government. Among the European settlers in the larger cities, police measures were needed to prevent theft and disorder resulting from the influx of strangers; in Dellys nothing of the kind was needed. The Kabyles took care of their own affairs.
There on the Quai d’Orsay, to his own astonishment, he found himself agreeing to act as the troupe’s guide in America. He had tried to escape his past, but his past had eventually outrun him.
In the shuttered Algerian Theater, Chabane and Papa Ganon found the unconscious stranger being tended by two of the troupe’s female performers. Though they went veiled when in the public eye, in chador or hijab, in private they favored western dress.
“I tell you, it is Salla,” one of the women said, daubing blood from the stranger’s face with a wet cloth. Piled on the ground were shards of glass they’d pulled from his wounds. “Look, he has Salla’s eyes.”
The other woman, Dihya, shook her head. “Taninna, you’ve gone mad. Salla is dead and buried. Besides, eyes or no, this man looks nothing like him.”
Chabane crouched beside Taninna, looking closely at the man. There were cuts all over his face, arms, and hands, and underneath the wool blanket the women had thrown over him, the stranger was completely naked.
The ministrations of the two women had already staunched the flow of blood from the stranger’s arms, and Chabane reached out to touch one of the scars, which looked older than the others, already healed, running like a ring around the stranger’s upper arm. But when Chabane’s fingers brushed the scar, he got a slight shock, like a spark of static electricity, and pulled his hand back quickly.
“What shall we do with him, amin?” Dihya asked, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand.
Chabane was thoughtful. “I’ll go speak with the tin soldiers, see what they have to say.”
Just opposite the Algerian Village, across the Midway Plaisance between the Old Vienna concession and the French Cider Press, was a Fire and Guard Station, manned by members of the Columbian Guard, the private police force of the Columbian Exhibition. The Guard was headed by Colonel Edmund Rice, a former infantry officer who had gained some small measure of fame during the Battle of Bull Run, where the Union army’s new-minted prometheic tanks had put an end to the short-lived southern insurrection. Under Rice’s command, the Columbian Guard was meant to be a model peacekeeping force, committed to the safety and security of all who strode upon the Exhibition grounds. In their uniforms of light blue sackcloth, white gloves, and yellow-lined black capes, though, they looked more like spear-carriers in a Gilbert & Sullivan production than officers of law. And their talents at peacekeeping, often, left something to be desired, more interested in presenting a dashing profile than in seeing justice done. It wasn’t for nothing that the concessioneers had taken to calling them “tin soldiers.”
As Chabane approached the Station, framing how best to broach the subject of the unconscious man who lay bleeding in the Algerian Theater, a trio of Columbian Guards rushed through the narrow door, the one in the lead shouldering Chabane aside.
“Out of the way, darkie,” the Guard sneered in English, patting the buttoned holster at his side. “We don’t have time to hear about any damned stolen monkeys.”
Chabane held up his hands, palms forward, and stepped back out of the way, presenting as inoffensive a profile as possible. “My apologies,” he answered, in his best drawing room English. If he’d wanted, he could have swept the legs out from under all three Guards, and taken their firearms from them as they fell. At the moment, though, he was more interested in what had stirred the normally laconic Guards to such a frenzy.
The three guards were hustling up the Midway, around the wheel and towards the Columbian Exhibition itself. A few of the other Midway concessioneers were still in the street, and Chabane could hear them muttering suspiciously to one another, like wives gossiping over a garden fence. Some had overheard the Guards within their hut, and had heard the summons to action.
There had been a murder in the park.
As he trailed behind the Columbian Guards at a discreet distance, keeping them just in sight as they hurried up the Midway, Chabane tallied up the number of deaths in the park since the previous summer, when the Algerian troupe had arrived from New York. Like the Algerian sword-swallower Salla, who had been working in a construction position in the park while waiting for the Midway to open, the deaths had all been accidents, all of them workers killed at their duties because of poor safety conditions. Salla had fallen from the airship mast and drowned in the waters of Lake Michigan, others had broken their skulls when masonry had fallen on them from improperly lashed cranes, or been crushed under piles of girders that slipped from the pincers of poorly programmed automata.
And it wasn’t just the dead men buried in paupers’ graves south of the park that had been affected. Even now, in the city itself, striking workers agitated for better working conditions, or for assurances that they would not lose their jobs to automation. The motto of the Columbian Exhibition was “Not Matter, But Mind; Not Things, But Men,” but Chabane could not help but wonder whether such noble sentiments were any salve to men who had been replaced at their posts by “things” in recent months and years. He knew it came as no comfort to those men who had died in automata-related accidents.
But accidents were one thing. A murder was a different matter entirely. And as much as the Exhibition’s Board of Directors might turn a blind eye to the loss of a few workmen, news of a murder would be bad business indeed for the fair.
It seemed a likely explanation that the bleeding and bewildered man now laying in the Algerian Theater was another victim, one who had escaped the killer’s grasp. But it seemed to Chabane just as likely that the Board of Directors would be eager for a scapegoat on which to hang the crime, and a confused stranger, unable to defend himself, would suit their needs perfectly. He wasn’t about to hand the stranger over to them, until he knew he wouldn’t be signing the man’s death warrant to do so.
Chabane followed the Guards through the 60th Street entrance and into the Columbian Exhibition itself. With only two weeks to go before the grand opening, it was clear there was still a significant amount of work to be done. The grounds were covered with litter and debris, with deep ruts cut across the greens. Lumber was piled haphazardly at the intersections of pathways, and empty crates and the discarded remains of worker’s lunches were strewn everywhere.
The Guards continued east, past the Children’s Building and the north end of the Horticultural Exhibition, before turning right and heading south along the western shores of the Lagoon. Chabane trailed behind, and when he rounded the corner of the Horticultural building, he could see the gentle rise of the Wooded Island in the middle of the Lagoon. Since he’d last come this way, they’d finished work on the fanciful reconstruction of the “Antediluvian” temple at the southern tip of the island. Supposedly based on archeological findings in Antarctica, it looked more like something out of Mezian’s story-papers. Also new since he’d last seen the Lagoon were the miniature submersibles bobbling along on the water’s surface, waiting for patrons to rent them for brief excursions to the bottom of the Lagoon once the Exhibition opened.
Chabane couldn’t help wondering what Captain Nemo would have made of that.
For that matter, what might Verne himself have made of the airship now drifting at anchor atop the mast just visible on the far side of the Lagoon, past the Manufactures building, on the pier out over Lake Michigan. It was a prometheic airship, its envelope buoyed by the red vapor produced by the reaction of prometheum and charcoal.
Prometheum was such a simple substance. It looked like water and flowed like mercury. Add it to water, and it would set the water to boil. Add it to charcoal, and it turned the charcoal into still more prometheum. Put it in a vacuum and shake it, and it glowed bright white.
Now that the sun had slipped below the buildings to the west, the park’s lamplighters had set to work, cranking the clockwork mechanisms at the base of each lamppost that set the cut-glass globes at the top of the posts to vibrating, agitating the prometheum within. Chabane had a pendant on his lapel, a little crystal flask, stopped with silver. If he were to shake it now, the clear, viscous liquid within would glow soft white, and not dim until almost sunrise.
Chabane watched as the Guards continued past the Transportation building, then turned left into the so-called Court of Honor, with the golden dome of the Administration building at its center. Chabane hurried his pace, so as not to lose sight of which building they entered.
As he rounded the corner of the Automata Exhibition, Chabane watched as the three Guards hurried through the massive doors of the Machinery Exhibition across the way. He followed behind at a somewhat more leisurely pace.
To Chabane’s left, opposite the massive Machinery hall, were the twin Automata and Prometheum buildings. Between them stood the fifteen-foot tall statue of Cadwalader Ringgold, in one hand a sextant, in the other a model of the crab-like Antediluvian automaton he’d brought back from the South Pole.
Of course, Ringgold hadn’t been the first to return with one of the automata, the first proof of the existence of the “Antediluvians.” That honor had fallen to James Clark Ross, who had brought back the broken husk of a mechanism with articulated limbs from the island that now bears his name in 1843, the year after Ringgold and the rest of the Wilkes Expedition had returned from the south seas. This had set off a race to the Pole, to find other examples of this strange, unknown technology. The Ringgold Expedition had won the golden ring when they returned with another, more intact automaton from deep within an icy mountain crevasse, in whose tiny engine there still rested a few precious drops of prometheum. A few drops were enough to change history, though, since added to charcoal it quickly produced more. And in short order, the automaton itself had been reverse-engineered.
The debate still raged about just who the Antediluvians had been. Had they been some forgotten race of man? Or visitors from another world or plane of existence? Some wild-eyed savants even suggested that the Antediluvians were actually the originals of the Atlantis myth, their existence remembered only in legend. All that was known for certain was that they had left behind a scant few examples of a technology that far outstripped that of modern man in the 1850s.
It had not taken modern man long to catch up, Chabane mused, as he passed through the entrance into the Machinery Exhibition.
The interior of the building was massive, looking like three railroad train-houses side-by-side. And though many of the stalls and booths were already installed, there was still considerable work to be done before the park opened, and the massive steam-powered cranes mounted overhead still hurried from one end of the building to the other and back again, time and again, moving the heavy machinery into place.
At the far left of the building, the west end of the hall, were installations from other countries—Canada, Great Britain, Austria, Germany, France—with the rest being American products. Behind the far wall, on the southern face of the building, was the boiler-house, where tanks of lake water were impregnated with small amounts of prometheum, which set them to boil almost immediately, transforming hundreds of gallons into steam in a matter of moments.
Nearly all of the exhibits drew their power from the steam-powered line shafts spinning at between 250 and 300 revolutions a minute, running from one end of the hall to the other at fourteen feet above the ground. Pulleys were strung from the drive shafts down to the exhibit stalls, strung tight as guitar strings, powering more kinds of machines than Chabane had known existed: water pumps, bottling mechanisms, refrigerating apparatus, trip-hammers, sawmill blades, printing presses, stone-saws, refinery mechanisms, and others whose uses he could scarcely guess. All powered by prometheic steam and, according to the banners and type-written signs hung on each installation, all of them profitable, the marvels of the age.
In the south-east corner of the building, though, where Chabane could see the Columbian Guards congregating, could be found less marvelous, less profitable exhibits. And it was around the smallest of these that the Guards were now milling.
There wasn’t much to the exhibit, just a shack, a banner proclaiming The Latter-Day Lazarus, a podium, a few pedestals, and a table designed to lever up on one end. The only machinery in evidence appeared to be some sort of motor, attached by a pulley to the drive shaft overhead. But the motor isn’t attached to anything but a pair of long, thick cables, one of which snaked towards the shack, the other towards the levered table. It took Chabane a moment to recognize it as the same sort of device he’d seen displayed in London, years before. It was a machine for generating electricity.
Outside of Mezian’s dime-novel, Chabane had heard precious little about electricity in years. It had been something of a novelty a few years back, and marketed as a new brand of patent medicine before the danger of electrocution had driven it from catalog pages all together, but aside from its use in telegraphy it was now all but abandoned. What was the product or device promoted by this “Lazarus” exhibit, and why the unnecessary risk of electricity?
The Columbian Guards he’d trailed had joined with the others already on hand, inspecting the area. Most of them were already inside the shack, which appeared to be the scene of the crime. Intent on their work, none seemed to pay any notice to Chabane. It wasn’t surprising. Like many of the Americans he’d encountered since the last summer, the Guards seemed to look upon men and women with dark complexions as nothing more than menials—janitors, gardeners, busboys, maids—and so Chabane had found it possible to slip in and out of groups of them all but unnoticed, effectively invisible.
With his eyes down and an unthreatening expression on his face, Chabane slipped into the shack. He had expected to see a body, perhaps some blood or signs of violence. What he found, instead, was like something from a Grand Guignol.
On the dusty floor, covered by a sheet, was a still human form, presumably the body of the dead man. Overhead, wire cages hung empty from the tarpapered ceiling, the floor of each caked in excrement.
The center of the shack was dominated by a bed-sized bench, with casters on the legs, and straps at either end and in the middle. Affixed to the top of the bench was a boxy metal frame, from one corner of which a thick cable snaked down and under the shack’s thin wooden wall. The ground around the bench was strewn with jagged bits of glass that crunched underfoot.
Beside the bench was a low table, on which were piled strange implements, saws, pliers, and clamps, along with what appeared to be various automata components. And what Chabane at first took to be strips of meat were scattered on the table and the surrounding ground, and pools of dark liquid congealing scab-like.
An abattoir stench hung thick in the air, and as Chabane stepped over to the nearest of the three barrels at the rear of the shack, he found the source of the smell. In the barrel was heaped viscera, blood, flesh, and bones. Chabane started, covering his mouth and gagging, then recognized the tiny child-like limbs as those of a monkey. Beside the limbs he saw the remains of a monkey skull, cut in half like a grapefruit, the brain scooped out. He remembered the animals missing from the Street in Cairo concession, and suppressed a shudder.
“What in god’s name is this?” came a blustering voice from the shack’s open door.
Chabane turned to see the chief of the Columbian Guard, Colonel Edmund Rice, shouldering into the shack, behind him another man with thinning hair and a prominent mustache.
“There’s been a murder,” one of the Guards explained, unnecessarily.
Rice shot the man a bewildered look, then shook his head, muttering something about the quality of officers he had at his disposal, comparing them unflatteringly to the 14th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
Chabane had accompanied Sol Bloom to a few meetings with Colonel Rice, but doubted the man had ever noticed he was there. Certainly, Rice hardly seemed to notice him now.
“Well, Robinson?” Rice turned to the mustached man behind him, who Chabane now recognized as L.W. Robinson, chief of the Columbian Exhibition’s Machinery department. The colonel reached down and flicked the blanket off the body on the floor. “Do you know this man?”
Robinson peered down at the burnt and bludgeoned man on the floor, and with a queasy expression quickly nodded. “Yes, I know him.” He straightened up and looked away. “That’s Tom Edison.”
Rice narrowed his eyes in concentration, and looked from Robinson to the dead man. “I know the name, but can’t place it.”
Robinson nodded again. “Was a bit famous for a time. He invented the phonograph, you may recall?” The colonel shook his head. “In any event, I only spoke with him briefly when he secured his spot in the hall, but it appeared that he’d sunk his fortunes into electricity years ago, and simply couldn’t see a way out.”
“Electricity?” the colonel repeated, disbelievingly. “Whyever for?”
Robinson shrugged. “Who can say? I tried to explain to him that there simply wasn’t any call for such things, not with prometheic steam engines and lights and automation and such, that he might as well try selling butter-churns. But Edison was not to be deterred. He had that wild-eyed look you see in religious zealots, you know the type? He was determined to find a way to make his… now what did he call them? Oh yes, his dynamos profitable.”
“That’s a ‘dynamo’ out front, I take it?” Rice asked.
The Machinery chief nodded. “Sad, isn’t it? Still, Edison wasn’t the only one. I’ve heard of a number of inventors and investors who’d hung all their hopes on electricity, in the years before prometheum really took hold. Most ended up going off into industries or trades, sooner or later. I even heard of one, a Serbian I believe, who became a writer of cheap fictions.” He looked back to the dead man on the ground, grimacing at the gruesome sight. “Clearly, though, Edison hadn’t been able to adapt. And it got him in the end. Unless I’m mistaken, he shows every sign of being electrocuted.”
One of the Guards stepped forward, and Chabane recognized him as the one from the Midway who was so quick with the racial epithets. “What do these dyna… dynami… dyna…” He shook his head. “What do these things have to do with this ‘Latter-Day Lazarus’ business? Was your man here intending to raise the dead with this electric thing?”
“If he was,” another Guard called from the rear of the shack, “I think he was doing it one piece at a time.” The Guard held aloft a severed arm, far too large to have come off any monkey.
“Jesus wept!” Rice spat, rearing back.
The Guards began muttering to one another, and Chabane distinctly heard several mentions of “grave-robbing” and “workmen’s bodies.”
“What?” Chabane said, stepping forward, for the first time making his presence known. “What did you say about the workmen’s graves?”
The others turned to him, most of them seeming to notice him for the first time.
“You’re that Jew’s Arab, aren’t you?” the colonel said, narrowing his gaze.
Chabane drew himself up straighter, and in perfect Queen’s English replied, “I am Kabyle, sir, and not of Arab descent, but I am presently in the employ of Mr. Bloom, if that is what you mean.” His hands at his sides tightened into fists, but he managed to maintain a calm exterior. “What was the mention of grave-robbing and the remains of the workmen?”
Rice glanced to Robinson, who looked as confused as Chabane, and then back. “It’s not public knowledge, and if the papers get word of it I’ll know where from. But some of the graves to the south have been disturbed, and the bodies laid to rest there have gone missing.”
“Would that include the Algerian who drowned in the lake?” Chabane asked.
Rice shrugged. “Only the Christian graves are marked, as I understand it.”
Chabane ignored Rice, and looked back to the barrels, from which the Guards were still pulling cadaver parts. There were severed hands and feet, a leg, two arms, bits of skulls, even a complete torso. He barred his teeth in a snarl, and turned to look down on the dead man on the floor. “My grandmothers always said that no one is to be lamented who dies during Ramadan, during which the gates of hell are closed and those of heaven always open. It doesn’t seem quite right that a man such as this should get into the gates of heaven uncontested, even if he was murdered.”
“Now hold on,” Rice objected, holding up his hands. “No one said anything about murder.”
“They didn’t?” Robinson asked, eyebrows raised.
Rice turned to the chief of Machinery, fixing him with a hard glare. “You yourself said this was an electrocution, right? An accidental electrocution?”
Robinson’s hands fluttered like caged birds. “I suppose it could have been,” he allowed. “But what about…”—he waved at the broken glass, the scattered tools, the splattered blood and viscera—“…all of this?”
“This,” Rice said evenly, “could well be simple vandalism. And vandalism is an entirely different order of magnitude to murder. Murder will get plastered over every paper in the country, and run the risk of turning paying customers away, if they think the killer is at large. One more accidental death and a spot of vandalism, that we can handle.”
“You’re joking, of course,” Chabane objected. “Have you no interest in seeing justice done?”
Rice glared at him. “There must be some jobs down south the automata won’t do, boy. Why don’t you get down there with the rest of the darkies and make yourself useful?”
Chabane bristled. There were still a few slaves in the southern United States, not yet supplanted by cheap automata. That this man could so casually dismiss their continued suffering in an off-hand slight brought Chabane’s blood to boil. For an instant, he almost forgot the welfare of the troupe to whom he’d pledged himself, or the stranger who had stumbled beneath the shelter of Chaban’s protection. If he’d been on his own, not responsible for anyone but himself, Chabane would have wished for nothing more than a flyssa saber in one hand and a Webley pistol in the other, and he would show these pale-skinned buffoons his worth. But he wasn’t on his own, and he was responsible for many more souls than just his own.
Marshalling his last reserves of restraint, Chabane strode to the door, and left the shack of horrors behind.
As he made his way back to the Midway, the stars had come out in the darkened skies overhead, and the prometheic lamps were now bathing the park in the soft white glow that had given the exhibition its unofficial name, the White City. But as clean as the white-clad buildings looked in the pure prometheic light, Chabane knew that they were only plaster and boards, hiding the rot and void beneath.
Of course Rice and the rest of his tin-soldiers were more concerned with pay-checks than with justice, happy to paint a murder as an accident if it suited the Board of Directors, whitewashing away any chance of bad publicity. Still, Chabane wasn’t sure that justice hadn’t been done, anyway. He remembered another Kabyle superstition his grandmothers had taught him, that there are never any demons abroad during Ramadan, because God compels them to remain in hell throughout the sacred month. Having seen the gruesome work of the dead man, Chabane doubted any demon ever did worse.
Passing the Terminal Station, he exited the park grounds through the 64th Street entrance, heading north up Island Avenue. Just before reaching the Midway, something bright caught his eye, a splash of color on the pavement reflecting back the prometheic light from above. It was Mezian’s dime-novel. Picking it up, Chabane flipped through the pages as he continued on towards the Algerian concession.
The prose was lurid, the action improbable, but there was something about the image of this future of electricity and equality presented by the author, that resonated with Chabane. This Nikola Tesla was no Jules Verne, but still Chabane was reminded of the sense of boundless potential he used to feel when reading the Extraordinary Voyages story-papers.
Before turning onto the Midway, Chabane saw a handbill posted to a lamppost, advertising the impending Opening Day celebrations for the Columbian Exhibition. In addition to the last living relative of Christopher Columbus, the duke of Veragua, the most honored guest at the ceremony would be the octogenarian Abraham Lincoln, former president of the United States, who would be on hand to cut the ribbon on the Exhibition.
The imagery of “Dane Faraday, Man of Justice” still rolling in his thoughts, Chabane tried to imagine a world in which James Clark Ross had never returned from the south seas with a broken automaton, in which Ringgold had never discovered prometheum, in which the modern age knew nothing of the forgotten Antediluvian civilization. Perhaps in such a world, there would now be an Electricity exhibit instead of a Prometheum one, with Tom Edison’s dynamos at center stage. And perhaps instead of an Automata building, one devoted to some other industry, metal-working perhaps, or mining. But then, in world in which the United States army lacked prometheic tanks, perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to subdue the southern insurrection, and the Union might have split in two over the question of slavery. Perhaps there might not be a Columbian Exhibition at all.
What Chabane couldn’t decide was whether such a world would be better, or worse, than the one he knew.
By the time Chabane returned to the Algerian concession, the sun had long since set, and the fourth prayer of the day, Maghrib, had been completed. Now the troupe was breaking their Ramadan fast. Even the non-observant among them, like Chabane, usually had the good graces not to eat and drink in front of the others while the sun was shining in the holy month. Fast or not, though, Chabane knew that a fair number of the performers, once their meals were done, would slip off and drink spirits, perhaps swapping Algerian wines for the “firewater” favored by Cody’s Indians. Perhaps tonight, instead of trying to stop them, Chabane just might join them.
The stranger sat among the Algerians, in his lap a plate of food, untouched. He had been cleaned up, his wounds bandaged, and dressed in a suit of borrowed clothes. He was awake, but unspeaking, and it was unclear what, if any, tongue he comprehended. He simply sat, watching the others silently, his expression mingling confusion and interest.
“Keep your distance, amin,” Papa Ganon said, as Chabane crouched down beside the man. “My hand brushed his bare skin while we were dressing him, and I got the shock of my life. He’s like a walking thundercloud, this one.”
Chabane nodded, and kept his hands at his sides. In the soft white glow of the prometheic lights overhead, Chabane examined the stranger closely. His coloration, what little of it could be seen beneath the bandages, cuts, and scars, was somehow… off. His skin was a darker shade than his light hair would suggest, the little hairs on the backs of his hands darker than his feathery eyebrows. And his features seemed mismatched, his nose too long and narrow, his mouth a wide slash in his face, his overlarge ears too low on his head.
“What will we do with him?” Dihya asked, coming to stand beside Ganon. Taninna came with her, staring hard at the stranger’s disfigured face, as though trying to find something hidden there.
Chabane thought about tradition, about the past and the future. He remembered the superstitions he’d been taught as a child, and the story-papers’ fantastic futures into which he’d fled.
In many ways, the future promised by Jules Verne had arrived, but not in the way the young Adherbal Aït Chabaâne had imagined. But the future that young Mezian now dreamt of, the future promised in Nikola Tesla’s colorful stories? They would never arrive. That wasn’t tomorrow, but was yesterday’s tomorrow. The world of Dane Faraday would never arrive, with its heavier-than-air craft, and wireless communications connecting distant nations, and incandescent lights dangling from wires, and massive dynamos. A world of phosphorescent gas tubes on lampposts, and power-lines crisscrossing the countryside, and antennas atop every house picking symphonies out of the air. Of men and women of all races and nationalities, each measured by their conduct and their character, not by their language or the color of their skins.
Chabane thought about the frisson he’d felt on flipping through Tesla’s story, the familiar thrill of boundless potential. But he realized now it wasn’t a hope for a new world to come, but a kind of nostalgia for a future that could never be. He thought about the dead man in the blood-covered shack in the Machinery building, so committed to a particular view of yesterday’s tomorrow that he had been willing to commit horrible acts to get back to it, whatever the cost.
“Amin?” Dihya repeated, seeing Chabane lost in thought. “What will we do with the stranger?”
Chabane took a deep breath, and sighed. He had tried to escape tradition before, and now knew he never would. “We do what our grandmothers would have us do. No stranger who comes into the village for aid can ever be turned away.”
Maybe it wasn’t all of the tomorrows that mattered, Chabane realized. Maybe what was truly important was preserving the past, and working for a better today. Perhaps that was the only real way to choose what kind of future we will inhabit.
But Taninna was right, Chabane knew, looking back to the silent man sitting in the cool glow of the prometheic light. The stranger did have Salla’s eyes.