(An absence of sandwiches, A sudden chill, Miss Iris to the rescue, and Rabbit talks)
Peter didn't notice that he'd been working all night until he heard Miss Iris clear her throat. Oh. The little table had become covered over again.
He chuckled and moved the pile of mechanical limbs. "I'm so close to the ultimate breakthrough... I've nearly got it."
"Breakfast," said Miss Iris. "You missed dinner, so I made extra."
He sniffed the air. Not a hint of sandwiches. But it was a mouth-watering aroma nonetheless. Rich and buttery and sweet, with the sharp scent of coffee. It made him hurry to clean up and eager to eat.
His sandwiches were never spoiled by grease. Nor worth bothering to sit for. But the kitchen artistry of Miss Iris was fast becoming an experience to look forward to. Peter lifted the cover and put his face in the way of the steaming aromas, inhaling deeply.
Omelette. Pancakes. Fried potato slices with mushrooms and bacon. And freshly made fruit preserves. His stomach woke with a vociferous snarl. He appeased it with some preserves on a pancake.
"What have you done to the head?" exclaimed Miss Iris. "It doesn't look well..."
Peter quickly swallowed a mouthful of omelette. "It's quite all right. I'm just feeding it some basic knowledge. English lexicon, identification algorithms, music theory. Thank goodness for Lady Lovelace, or I'd have been at it all night."
"Colonel, you have been up all night..."
"Well, yes, but with other things! Incredible things. The very process of sitting for meals lets the ideas percolate and ripen into fully-fledged advances. And I thought those sandwiches would help me hurry up..." He paused to more fully enjoy another mouthful. Ah, the tastes! Rushing a single bite of this repast would be a sin against flavour. "I should thank you for the revelation."
Miss Iris, in the middle of sorting his inspirations, almost dropped a Babbage brain. She fumbled it onto a shelf before she mumbled, "Please don't?"
Peter worried that he'd done something wrong to her, and pondered what it was for some time. In between enjoying the very good breakfast, of course. Letting it go cold would be just as sinful as whatever transgression he had committed to earn Miss Iris' sudden coldness.
Finally, when he was halfway through, he surrendered and confessed, "Miss Iris... It is rather to my regret that I have continuing difficulties with proper behaviour in social situations. I never want to offend you or anybody, I promise. Just... should I forget myself and become improper or offensive... Please tell me?"
Miss Iris finished what she was doing and stood oddly still for almost a minute. When she spoke, it was quietly and with great caution. "I'm still in doubt as to whether your actions could be found offensive or improper, Colonel."
Which still left him lost at sea. "What did I do? I know I did something for you to act like this. You're so good to me. And now you're--"
At that exact moment, the Admiral charged into the room, bellowing, "How dare you stage such a mutiny in front of the help!"
Peter was more annoyed at the interruption than afraid of his father. "I'm having breakfast, sir. While Miss Iris sorts my lab out. If you don't want a stir in front of the help, I would suggest you wait until I'm alone."
"I OUTRANK YOU, YOU MISERABLE EXCUSE FOR A HUMAN BEING! WHO CARES WHAT YOUR SOCIAL STANDING IS? THE INSTANT YOU SIRE MY LEGACY, I'M PUTTING YOU IN AN ASYLUM, YOU MISBEGOTTEN, MISERABLE, MALFORMED, MUTATED ABOMINATION!"
Peter hid ineffectually under the little table and curled up on himself until all he could see were legs. His breaths came rapidly and with little effect. Tears in his eyes made the spots in his vision blur and dance. He had no room to rock himself, but he could still whisper, "Dummins, dummins, dummins," regardless of whether he was breathing in or out.
The Admiral fell silent in mid roar.
Peter could see Miss Iris' legs between himself and the Admiral's.
She said, "The Colonel and I were alone together," as though that were important somehow. "Are you certain that you're not... scuttling your own ambitions?"
It took the wind right out of the Admiral's sails. He lost his bluster in an instant and merely murmured, "Carry on," before he left.
Peter knew that he was addling again because, at that moment, he was illogically convinced that Miss Iris was magic. He wanted nothing more than to snatch her up and hold her close like a cuddly toy against the terrors of the night.
But that would be very wrong, and he had to resist such impulses. Miss Iris probably already had someone she was stepping out with. And a very lucky gentleman he was, too, to capture her excellent attentions. Peter spared a moment of jealousy for the lucky fellow who would enjoy Miss Iris' cooking for the rest of their days together.
But only a moment, because she was back at his side and gently extracting him from his hiding place.
"He's gone away, now. You get back to your breakfast. Get something warm inside you."
Wise words. His trembling stomach settled down like a lapdog when he swallowed a small forkful of omelette. Good food settled him better than an entire afternoon of assembling clockwork. Definitely better than a day at the Cavalcadium.
Speaking of days at the Cavalcadium... "Is it Thursday yet? I have lectures on Thursdays."
"Still Tuesday, Colonel. Two more days yet."
"Good. I was rather hoping to have something worth showing off. Plenty of time for genuine progress."
He watched her between appreciative mouthfuls. Trying to divine a process that might improve his own, rather lacking efforts to derive order out of his personal chaos. Watched how she piled the loose paper up neatly, or stacked books according to size. Or sorted automaton pieces by type of metal, size, or dimensions.
Thanks to his enlarged breakfast, she had more than enough time to unearth two metal trays and a host of filthy crockery as well. This last accomplishment seemed to be the one that cheered her the most.
"Do you have a special interest in washing up?" he asked.
What a musical laugh she had. "Not in the slightest," she answered. "Mrs Cambridge has been wanting these back." Plates and cups stacked just so, in order to fit under the matching covers. And a third, much larger stack by both.
Peter blushed at the thought that he'd been this neglectful concerning proper lab procedure in his own home. His fault, of course. He got so wrapped up in what he was doing that he entirely forgot about what he had just done.
Plates and cups just became more stuff in the way of what he needed to do now.
And his current system of moving things out of his way... Really did leave much to be desired.
"Miss Iris," he ventured, "please consider yourself and any maid brave enough to venture this far formally invited to forge order out of my personal chaos. It's... clearly evident that I need the help."
She bobbed a curtsy, and muttered, "Yes, Colonel," before she scooped up a tray and as many cups as she could carry.
Something about the way she said that made him wonder if he'd said something wrong.
The copper head on his workbench started chiming slow, ascending tones. It was nearly done! Peter hurried to finish his breakfast. Swigged the last of his coffee and looked about his lab for something to test his experiment's lexicon on.
Aha! The rabbit he'd had living in this lab to test the long term effects of Blue Matter on organic life. So far, the creature has lost a lot of melanin from its skin and fur, but otherwise seemed fine. So it was shades of blue and black, now, instead of brown tones from nature. And its skin had bleached stone white... But it was still a picture of health.
It's automatic feeding mechanisms needed refilling, soon. But not today. Peter moved the cage to an area where the head could see it, and waited eagerly for the ascending tones to reach their final chord.
Ocular apertures flickered. The light of its eyes flickered too. Finally, a blink. The copper head looked right at him, as it always had, but there was an inexplicable glimmer of intelligence behind those glowing eyes.
"Identify," Peter said, "this creature."
"Rrrrr... Raaaa... Bit. Rrraaa-bit. Rabbit."
Success! He danced and shook himself and jumped for the sheer joy of it. O, if the Admiral saw him at it, the old man would find his stock cane again and get to whipping... But this! This was entirely too joyful an event to not throw himself about like he was demented.
"Rabbit," said the copper head. "Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit, rabbit..."
Peter still giggled. "Yes. Correct. Very good. Now... identify," he pointed to himself, "this."
"Rabbit," said the head.
All his former joy came crashing down like a comet. Plunged into the depths of the darkest oceans. "No. No. Wrong. Creator. Colonel Walter."
"Rabbit?" said the head. It seemed as confused and concerned as Peter was. It even moved on its elementary neck assembly as if it were trying to encourage him to be happy again. "Rabbit... rabbit."
Tears fell, unheeded, as he slumped into his chair. Something had gone grievously wrong. The head was displaying emotions, he could read worry and confusion. Possibly mimicking Peter's own expressions.
"Rabbit," the head singsonged gently. "Rabbit, rabbit... rabbit rabbit rabbit..."
Miss Iris came back. "Nobody else dares come up with me, Colonel," she said as she bustled in.
The head tracked her motion, said its obligatory, "Rabbit," and chirped a wolf whistle.
Miss Iris glared at him as if he were a naughty child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
"It's supposed to use more words," Peter wailed. "I gave it an entire encyclopaedia's worth of information, an enormous lexicon... And all it will say is 'rabbit'. I thought... I thought... I'd finally done something right."
"Rabbit," cooed the head.
Miss Iris flicked the head as one would flick a bug. "Huh," she said. "Well, mister Rabbit... All you say is all you are."
The copper head stared up at Miss Iris in apparent wonder. It turned its glowing eyes to Peter and then again back to Miss Iris. Then it said, "I Rabbit! Awesome!" And it grinned at Peter.
Peter sighed and pointed to himself again. "Identify this," he reiterated.
"Not rabbit," said the head. "Not awesome."
Miss Iris tapped its forehead. "You mind your Pappy, you thing. He's trying to make sure you're working right."
"Miss Iris... You can't talk it into doing things. It barely responds correctly at all..."
The head conspired to look contrite. "Rabbit sorry, Pappy. I be good now."
A small, mouselike noise escaped his throat. "Miss Iris, you are a miracle worker." He was beyond stunned. He still had his testing to do, and after he regained his personal equilibrium, he picked up a random object. "Rabbit... Identify this, please."
Rabbit correctly identified, in order, a gear, a pencil, a book, paper, a plate, and Peter as "Pappy", then recognised pictures of people before it grew confused by a mirror.
"Metal skull?" Rabbit guessed. "Moving? Copy cat!"
Peter laughed. "That's you. This is a mirror. It reflects light. See?" He twisted himself around so that Rabbit could see both itself and Peter in the boundaries of the frame.
Rabbit cooed appreciatively. "Two Pappies..."
"It's just an image," Peter chuckled. He put the mirror down. What else could he test with? Aha! He seized the head for his second experimental automaton. "What's this?"
"Not mirror," said Rabbit. "Machine? Spare Rabbit?"
Now there was some excellent logic. "Almost. You're not going to be alone. This is going to be another automaton. Just like you."
"Brother?" said Rabbit.
Peter smiled and cleared off the slab. "For the sake of argument, perhaps. I think it's past time to get the two of you put together."
There was the chest, there was the spinal arrangement. Hips. Legs. Feet. Arms, oh yes. He'd mislaid a left hand. It had to be in here somewhere...
"Oh, Colonel," sighed Miss Iris. "You went and turned it all upside-down..."
He looked up from his scrabbling through another pile on the floor. "I can't find the other hand," he complained.
She crossed the room in eight steps and pulled the missing appendage out of a heap like a stage magician extracting a bunny from his hat. "Is it this hand?"
Peter sprang up. "Magnificent! I shall definitely need your sharp eyes for this endeavour, Miss Iris." He fetched Rabbit's head and vital assembly to the slab. By the time he got it there, she had already rearranged most of the body parts in anatomical configuration.
"How big is this thing going to be?" blurted Miss Iris. "These parts are enormous."
"Oh, it should still fit in the elevator. Not with too much trouble, anyway. Now... where's that jar of screws?"