(A recurrence of levitation, The return of the good colonel, A new name, and Saved from sandwiches in anger)
Iris found out about Peter's return from the newspapers. Sightings of a gigantic mechanical giraffe were treated as amusing news by the press. Laughable jolly reports along the lines of some drunkards would see anything.
That man! The least he could have done was send one of his enigmatic telegrams.
But no, she had to find out at the same time as the rest of the world. Though hardly anyone outside the manor or the Cavalcadium knew what the giant giraffe meant. He was leaving chaos in this wake, and even caused a disturbance on the railroads by flagging down an engine to beg a bucket of coal.
Delilah did not run on Blue Matter like the rest of the automatons. She could use anything combustible to generate amazing power. She could even ‘eat’ fuel by browsing spare vegetation for her furnace. For Peter to beg a pail of coal, he had to be in a region where there was no vegetation to spare.
Above the snow line? Which meant he was in the mountains!
Iris passed the news to Mrs Cambridge rather than deal with the Admiral. Despite his softening in the general direction of his Ebigail, he still talked roughly about her gestation. All his talk of her ‘precious cargo’ made her feel less like prime steak and more like a freight barge. And she wasn't even showing very much. If she left her corset in safekeeping, she could still wear her uniform without discomfort.
Well, without too much discomfort. The infant pressing on her bladder with alarming regularity still made her ill. And dizzy. Mrs Cambridge plied her with fortifying snacks on the sly. She knew as much as anyone how the tongues liked to wag in the manor.
Iris assisted the continuing silence by remaining out of sight from most of the maids. Only turning up at meals. The fact that Peter was not at home meant that they could all wear more decent skirts. A fact for which Iris was secretly glad. She didn’t have to deal with visitors while her stockinged calves were on display for God and everyone.
Iris waited until the Admiral was deep into another loquacious letter to the Lady Ebigail before she ventured into his office. Her copies of the papers folded so that the important news was readily accessed. Ventured a brief, “He’s on his way home,” before putting the papers in his in-box and making a break for the door before she once again heard the words ‘precious cargo’ escape his lips.
She did hear, “Him and that damned giraffe. Couldn’t he just take the train?” before she was safely away from his field of view. Iris didn’t know about the average land speed of Delilah, but she guessed that Peter was just days away from Walter Manor.
And when she was quite finished being cross with him for not sending notice, she would break the joyous news.
With that thought in mind, she aired out his room and made sure that the taps in his ensuite wouldn’t knock from laying so idle for so long. And then, dizzy and slightly ill from all the bending, Iris found the most comfortable chair in the study.
And levitated once more when Rabbit’s voice hollered, “HEY MA! GUESS WHO’S HOME!”
That ridiculous giraffe was just outside the window. Rabbit was clinging to its horns and waving like a mad thing. Never before in her life was she halfway between the extremes of hysterical, gratified weeping and outright murder.
He was back! And the four of his metal children were clambering around the neck of Delilah. Seemingly carefree. Whole and hearty.
Her attention was on the belly of Delilah, and the man who may yet emerge from it. She could not see the porthole by which he entered or left. She could not see any hint of him. Not at this angle.
Iris raced for the stairs, almost ran down them in her hurry to see if Peter was well. If he was injured. If he was maimed. If he was…
Then she considered the tragedy to everyone in the Manor that would occur if her shoes slipped and she tumbled down the stairs. Iris veered for the elevator and called it up to her level. Tom would be at his station, she hoped, instead of being plied with all manner of sneaky treats, because nothing amused the other maids more than a hungry boy.
It seemed like forever before the cage rose. And forever again for it to settle back down into the foyer, where Rabbit and Three were already doing some kind of victory dance with The Spine. Kicking their knees up and swinging each other around by their elbows. They were chanting something. Three of them chanting their own words, so it came out in an unintelligible babble of noise.
Four entered on his pinpoint feet. He had somehow acquired a pocket-watch, which he consulted. “Time for Pap-py’s sand-wich,” he cheered. He opened up the hatch on his front and reached inside. Like a magician, he managed to produce…
One of those awful, awful horsebread concoctions she had been trying so hard to make him give up. She strode out of the elevator like an avenging angel. “Oh no, you don’t! Pappy’s home, now. He doesn’t need those horrid sandwiches. And if I have any say at all in the matter, he never will.”
“Ah, thank you, Hatchy,” smiled Peter. He was all over stubble and grease. His skin pale, not from illness, but from the complete spread of Blue Matter’s mark. He was disheveled, of course, and looking like he had never got a sound night’s sleep since the day he left the Manor. He plucked the sandwich from Four’s bronze fingers and nearly had it in his mouth when he spotted Iris.
Iris cleared her throat in something like a growl.
Peter stood there, frozen. His mouth wide open and the dreadful sandwich nearly at his lips. An expression of muted horror in his eyes, very much like a child caught elbow-deep into the cookie jar.
Iris shook her head slowly, her eyes silently pleading, Don’t make me watch you eat that terrible thing?
The sandwich lowered. “But, Miss Iris…” he murmured, barely short of a whine.
“Let me cook something decent for you, Colonel?” she begged. “You don’t need those any more.”
“...but I like them…”
Iris folded her arms, thinned her lips, and sighed through her nose.
Now Peter held the sandwich in front of his chest like a very ineffectual shield. “Maybe a little one? As a treat? For afters?”
He had, after all, saved the world from a madman. “Half a sandwich. After a proper meal.”
Resigned to his fate, Peter handed Four the dreadful sandwich with a muted, “It can wait, Hatchy.”
“That’s your name now? Hatchy?” Iris let herself become distracted. “Congratulations.”
“He can pull out a hatch’s worth of sandwiches in mere seconds,” boasted Peter. “Hence, Hatchworth.”
“Please tell me they were not all horsebread…” And then she remembered that she was cross with him. “This is yet another thing you could have mentioned in your very rare telegrams, Colonel. Including letting us know you were returning to us. Or how well everyone fared. Or whether you were hurt.”
Peter looked up at the main stairwell. Bit his lip. “Maybe… we should discuss this in a more private setting?”
Iris looked. Clusters of maids were gathering not only on the stairs, but on the landings connecting to them. She said, “I trust that a good portion of you will keep an eye on the automatons until such time as I’m through seeing to the Colonel?”
And without thinking about what it could mean, she seized his hand and marched directly towards the kitchens. Her only word on the journey was, “Duck,” whenever she passed through a doorway. Peter perforce stumbled along behind her. He would occasionally try to babble, but his efforts were halfhearted.
She finally deposited him in a chair in the kitchen and started angrily gathering ingredients. Tom had managed to appear as if by magic, as he always did when there was food in the offing in general and whenever Iris turned her hand to the stoves in particular. Which meant, in turn, that she could not discuss the most vital of business.
Small though he was, Tom had a very big mouth.
“I don’t know what you were thinking, hardly sending any word at all. Some of us were worried about you. You’re the only thing standing between all of us unmarried maids and physical assault from the Admiral.” Rage made her hands fly. Pounding out dough. Flattening pastry. Whipping whatever needed whipping into an absolute lather. “You could have at least mentioned whether or not you were well. I had nightmares about you coming home maimed. That is, if you came home at all. And you never bothered to say how the babies were doing.”
“...they’re machines, Miss Iris…”
“They’re still babies! Three months old and sent into a war they couldn’t possibly understand… And you! Not a word from you for weeks! And where are all the generic automatons?”
“Um. Well. Becile… ruined… all of Babclock’s human workers, so… um… The ones I could repair? Uh… went? Into the mines? They’ll be safely disposing of any Green Matter they find there. And it’s safer for them. They… they don’t know how… to look after themselves. So… so many fell in the battle. One out of ten made it purely by happenstance alone.”
“Will Babclock be looking after them, or is he of the opinion that they’re just machines?”
“I… told him the more personality they’re exposed to... the more personality they gain. He’s… he’s paired them up with new hires.”
Good God, an entire mine full of unwed parents. “I can only hope they were up to the task.” She set some things to frying. Other things to bake. Tom rubbed his hands in naked avarice. “And your quartet? Were they at all upset?”
Peter brightened a little. “Oh, Hatchy took to battle like a duck to water. Rabbit adored making things explode. Three was all over the battlefield like a mad thing, the enemy didn’t know where to shoot!” He laughed. “The Spine was very serious about it all. Grim, I think. He never liked breaking things, poor fellow.”
None of them knew they were giving some final mercy to humans, then. “So… there was no cure for what Becile had done?”
“They were dead before I got to them, Miss Iris. There was no hope. Be grateful you never saw… those monstrosities.”
Which meant that he did. “Will there be nightmares, then?”
He was looking down at his pale hands. Ghost white, and the nails were blue. “I tend to be very discreet about those. Nobody’s going to be disturbed.”
The first array of foods were ready. Iris dished them out diplomatically, though she gave herself a smaller portion. Her morning sickness was nearly done, and the eating for two stage of things threatened to be eating for three. She ameliorated the symptoms by snacking whenever anyone wasn’t watching. “And you? How did you do in this war?”
“It was over in three days. I didn’t have time to -ah- soak in it… like my time in service. Dead bodies don’t disturb me as much as dying ones, it turns out. Even though they were moving… they were still dead.”
Tom, listening to it all, paused his voracious eating to stare. His eyes had gone wide and his breath slowed to a bare whisper. He looked like he was on the verge of tears. Or the verge of cheering Colonel Walter like a homecoming hero. “How w’s they still movin’,” he breathed, “If they was dead?”
“Green matter. It’s so unstable it can create a parody of life in dead flesh. It also fuses that flesh to metal. The remains of people… of humans… had become merged with the machines they… they operated. It was a nightmare, but it was one I could tolerate.”
Iris got up to check on the rest of the food. “And the reason you couldn’t send more telegrams?”
He blushed blue. A dark indigo. “Ran out of money to send them. Had to be brief.”
Iris busied herself in serving another course. “I don’t know whether to kiss you or kick you, silly man.”
He murmured, “I much prefer the kissing.”
That comment should have been cute, but it made her irredeemably angry. She attacked her cooking with renewed vitriol and growled, “Those who prefer kissing should be amenable to the consequences.”
She barely heard him whisper to Tom, “Help, what did I do?”
Tom, sitting in the corner of her vision, where she could pick up the movement, only had a shrug for him.