January 14th, 18–
The smell of bacon wafting through the flat stirred Victor’s consciousness. He blinked open his eyes, looking around in disorientation for a moment as his groggy brain tried to process why he was sleeping on a couch in a sitting room instead of in his bed at home. Then the events of the other day caught back up to him. Well, he thought, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. Welcome to your new life, Master Van Dort.
He followed the smell of the bacon into the little combined kitchen and dining area. He hadn’t seen much of it the other day – most of his time had been spent in the sitting room, talking with his new employers and getting the couch made up into a suitable bed. Now, though, he could see that it was very far from an ordinary kitchen. There were the usual appliances you found in a kitchen – an icebox, an oven with a stove top, some counters, some cupboards, and a sink. But the icebox was humming in a rather peculiar manner, the oven looked like it had been rebuilt at least once, and the counters were laden with all sorts of strange machinery. Some of which was moving at the moment. Victor wandered closer to see two pans sitting on the stove – one with eggs, one with the bacon he’d smelled earlier. There was also strange box with a slot on it – as Victor watched, toast popped up out of the slot.
“Ah, you’re up,” a voice said behind him. Victor turned to see Dr. Brown there, smiling. “Ready for breakfast?”
Victor nodded, looking again at the food cooking before. “This is – quite the machine you’ve set up,” he said.
“Took me a while to get the timings right,” Dr. Brown commented, picking up the piece of toast and taking a bite. “And the toast still ends up burnt more often than not.”
“I’ve never seen an electric toaster before,” Victor confessed, examining it in amazement. “We did all our toasting the old way, with forks over the fireplace.”
“Well, these are still prototypical,” Dr. Brown said, inserting another piece of toast into the machine. “I’m sure once someone solves the ‘catches on fire occasionally’ problem for good, everyone will want one.”
Victor hurriedly moved away from the device. “Do you use a lot of electricity here?”
“Oh, yes. I’m a big proponent of electricity as the way of the future,” Dr. Brown grinned. “We’ve got our own generator downstairs. Needs regular maintenance, sometimes breaks down, but it works well enough.” He indicated the icebox. “I’m particularly proud of what I was able to do with this. It’s a full electricity-run refrigeration unit. A far more streamlined version of what I had back in my old lab. That one was steam-run, and it was only really good for producing ice cubes. This one can actually keep food cold.” He opened the door, cold air misting out and condensing on the floor. “Care for some milk? Juice? Or I could put on a pot of coffee.”
“Milk will be fine,” Victor said, peeking inside. The interior of the icebox was divided into sections by various shelves. Liquids were on the top, and various types of cold food lined the others. He stuck a hand in – it was quite chilly. “And it does this without the help of ice?”
“Under normal conditions – we try to have ice on-hand if the generator breaks down,” Doc said, pulling out the milk. “Go on, sit down – Marty should be in shortly.”
Victor obeyed, taking a seat at the little table as Dr. Brown prepared plates. As he began actually dishing out the food, Marty stumbled in, looking groggy. “Hello, unconscious one,” Dr. Brown said with a smirk. “Is the analytical engine up and running?”
“Half power,” Marty muttered, sitting down and taking a big gulp of milk. He wiped his mouth, then noticed Victor. “Hey. How’d you sleep?”
“Fine,” Victor said. Which wasn’t quite accurate, but he didn’t think they needed to hear that he’d stared at the ceiling for at least a hour before finally drifting off. Besides, that would have happened whether he had stayed or not. Chronic insomnia was one of the things he hated most about his mind. “How about yourself?”
“Okay,” Marty yawned. “I just hate getting up in the morning.”
“He’d sleep until noon if I let him,” Dr. Brown reported, sitting down to his own breakfast. “I know because I did once. Sometimes I wonder if he’s really awake when he gets up, or if he’s simply moving on autopilot.”
“I’m awake, I’m awake,” Marty said, spearing some bacon on his fork. “Just need some time to get going.”
“Well, we’ve got a busy day today,” Dr. Brown said. “In addition to our normal activities, we need to get Victor settled here.” He glanced the young man up and down. “You’ll need clothes for a start. Will the couch do as a bed for now? I know it’s probably a bit cramped because of your height--”
“It’s fine,” Victor assured him. “I don’t w-want you to go to too much t-trouble on my account. But I will have to write my p-parents and let them know I’m all right. Otherwise t-they’ll worry terribly.”
“Of course,” Dr. Brown said. “You can write them right after breakfast if you want. I’ve got paper handy.”
“I’ll take you out to get your stuff,” Marty offered, looking more awake now that he’d gotten some food inside of him. “There’s a clothing shop a couple of blocks down the street I know. We should be able to get something for you.” He eyed Victor for a moment. “How tall are you?”
“Six feet and three inches,” Victor said, finishing off his eggs.
Marty whistled slightly. “He’s got two inches on you, Doc. And almost a foot on me,” he added, sounding a bit sulkily.
“Don’t start about your height,” Dr. Brown said firmly. “You’re fine the way you are.”
“Be better if I’d actually went through that growth spurt everybody tells me about.” Marty had some more bacon. “Your family tall, Victor?”
“Well, on my father’s side,” Victor said. “Mother’s family tends to be shorter.” He smiled. “According to them, I’m a Van Dort through and through – too tall and too skinny for my own good.”
“I didn’t want to say anything,” Marty smirked.
“Oh, stop it you two,” Dr. Brown said, looking between them. “Anyway, I’ll give you some money, and you two can go out and get whatever you think you need. Then when you get back I can show Victor around the shop.”
“The shop?” Victor repeated, a little surprised.
“Yes – my lab doubles as a money-making venture,” Dr. Brown said, gesturing with his coffee cup. “E.L. Brown’s 24-Hour Scientific Services. Mostly I do repair work, but occasionally someone asks for a specific invention. It works well for me – I’m doing something I love, and it leaves me plenty of time for my own work.”
“Oh.” Victor poked at his last piece of bacon for a moment. “D-do you get a lot of – Touched customers?” he asked, wondering if that was polite.
“A few,” Dr. Brown said. “Most of us prefer building our own, of course. But I’ve made some friends who are willing to let me take a look at their things.”
“Not too close a look, mind,” Marty joked, earning himself a playful glare from Dr. Brown.
Victor shook his head, chuckling. “Of course not. I was just wondering, since you’re nothing like I expected you to be. . . .”
“Trust me, if there’s something Touched are not, it’s predictable,” Dr. Brown grinned. “Yes, some of us are dangerous, but if they come into my shop, they should be fine to talk to. Now come on, let’s finish our breakfasts.”
They cleaned off their plates and put them in the sink to soak a bit. Victor was led to the tiny room Dr. Brown had converted to an office. He heard the contents of the room before he saw them – what looked like dozens of clocks, scattered all around. Some hung on the walls, others sat on shelves, still others were propped up on the floor. The study was alive with the sound of constant ticking. “Er – are they to help with your time travel experiments?” he guessed, staring around at them.
Dr. Brown let out a short, somewhat embarrassed laugh. “Well, some of them. I’ve just always had an affinity for time pieces, especially after that incident with the toilet that led to my conception of the flux capacitor.” He grinned. “I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve managed to get them all precisely in sync.”
“All of them?” Victor said, astonished.
“Yup! You should hear it when they strike the hour. It’s music to the ears.”
Victor tried to imagine it. It seemed more like a good way to go deaf to him. “It’s very impressive, I’m sure,” he said, half-truthfully and half-to be polite.
“It is. Anyway--” Dr. Brown slid open one of the drawers of his desk. “Here’s some paper, and an envelope. Just give it to me when you’re done and I’ll make sure it’s posted.”
“Thank you.” Victor sat down as Dr. Brown went to attend to the dishes. He looked at the blank sheet of paper for a moment, thinking about what he wanted to say. Then he picked up the pen sitting in the inkwell and began to write. Dear Mother and Father, I know this will come as something of a shock to you both. . . .
He wrote quickly, assuring his parents of his safety and explaining his situation and his decision to stay with Dr. Brown and Marty. They probably won’t believe it’s from me, he thought as he signed the letter. I hardly believe it’s from me. Who would have thought not twenty-four hours ago that today I would have agreed to stay in Secundus as the assistant to a Touched? Still, it seems all right so far. We’ll see how it goes.
He let the ink set for a few minutes to dry, then folded up the letter and stuffed it in the envelope. He found Dr. Brown and gave him the completed missive – the scientist promised to mail it before the day was out. He in return gave Victor some money and sent him and Marty out onto the streets to buy essentials.
Secundus from ground level was just as strange as Secundus from the air. The instant he descended the steps, Victor was hit by the sheer busyness of the city. There were people everywhere, thronging along the streets. Most of them looked normal enough, but interspersed here and there were people who looked like they’d been sewn together, or some who were sporting more than the usual number of limbs or heads. There were also some Automatons roaming about, zipping along on wheels or crawling around on many-jointed legs. Victor thought he saw the pickle people again at the end of the street. “Goodness,” he breathed.
“Wild, huh?” Marty said, coming to stand behind him. “You’ll get used to it.”
“I don’t see how,” Victor admitted, as a man with what looked to be a clockwork-driven leg passed by them on a bicycle.
“It’s easier than you think – you got used to me and Doc quick, right?” Victor had to nod to that. “Right. Come on, let’s get you some decent threads.”
“Come on, Victor, I want to see how it looks!”
Victor looked down at his new outfit doubtfully. “You’re sure this is standard dress for this city?”
“That’s pretty tame compared to what some people wear. Come on!”
Reluctantly, Victor exited the dressing room. Marty grinned and gave him a thumbs up. “You look good!”
Did he? Victor looked down at himself again. The black suit itself wasn’t too different from the ones he was used to. The lemon yellow vest and emerald green tie weren’t too strange either, although they were certainly brighter than anything in Burtonsville. And there was absolutely nothing peculiar about the shoes. But the long coat he was wearing over it all. . .it was a perfectly acceptable black, but it seemed to come pre-ripped for some reason, the tattered flaps brushing up against his legs. There was something similar going on with the gloves – they’d be fine if someone hadn’t cut off the tips of the fingers. And – “I still don’t quite understand why you say I ought to wear these,” he said, reaching up and pulling the black and green goggles off his forehead. “What purpose do they serve?”
“Trust me, you live here for a while, you’re gonna want a good pair of goggles,” Marty said, indicating the brass-colored pair hanging from his belt. Then he grinned. “Besides, you look cool with them.”
“I look. . . .”
Marty had the grace to look a little embarrassed. “It means something looks good,” he explained. “We’ve kind of got our own slang around here.”
“So I see,” Victor muttered, feeling utterly lost. Why had he agreed to the job as Dr. Brown’s second assistant again? He knew absolutely nothing about mad science! Goodness, he knew little enough about regular science! Except entomology, but what use would that be here? Whoever heard of a Touched entomologist? He’d probably be fired in less than a week. Perhaps it would be easier to save everyone the trouble and ask Dr. Brown to take him home now. . . .
But even as he thought that, something deep inside him rebelled against the notion. Even with all his nervousness about working around and with a Touched, and fitting in here in Secundus, he didn’t really want to go home. Burtonsville was so – so dull when compared with the wonder that was Secundus. And going home met dealing with his parents, and the Everglots, and the distinct possibility – no, the almost certainty – of an arranged marriage. . . .
“You okay over there?” Marty asked, pulling him out of his thoughts. The teenager was watching him with a rather concerned expression. “You look worried. More worried than usual, I mean.”
Victor smiled. That was something else – already, Dr. Brown and Marty were the closest things he’d had to friends ever since Scraps had died. That was definitely not something he’d get back in Burtonsville. “Just reflecting on all that’s happened in the last day,” he admitted. “Just an attack of nerves on my part. So – how much is all this?”
Marty grinned again. “Shouldn’t be more than about twenty, twenty-five bucks – shillings -- or is it pounds?” he corrected himself with a slight wince. “Jesus, I’ve been there for almost a year, you’d think I remember. . . .”
Victor felt his curiosity rise up again. “Where exactly is it you come from?” he asked. “You’ve mentioned a place called Hill Valley a number of times, and I’ve gathered from your accents that you and Dr. Brown are American, but which state?”
“California,” Marty provided. “We’re one of the newer towns out there. I think we only got official cityhood about – twenty years ago?” He shrugged. “Before I was born, anyway.”
Victor nodded. “Do you ever miss it there? I imagine England is a rather large change.”
“Well, I’m not liking all the rain, no,” Marty confessed, bringing a smile to Victor’s lips. “Yeah, I do a little. Mostly my family and my girlfriend.”
Victor blinked. “Your family?” he blurted, then blushed. “I’m s-sorry, I just – I assumed you were Dr. Brown’s ward.”
“Easy mistake when you’ve known somebody for a day,” Marty said, unoffended. “And I am, sort of. He’s in charge of me while we’re over here, anyway. But I’m not an orphan – I’ve got my parents and a brother and sister back home. I write ‘em every month.”
“I see.” Victor frowned thoughtfully. “So – and f-feel free to t-tell me I’m out of line – why did you come here with Dr. Brown?”
“Oh, you know, I wanted to get out and live a little.”
“Live a little?”
Marty nudged him, smiling. “Come on, Victor, you’re from a small town. You know what they’re like. All the houses the same, everybody watching everybody else, and the same thing happening day after day--”
“After day,” Victor finished with a sigh. “Oh, yes, I understand that.”
“I thought you would. Going with Doc meant an adventure. And my family knows and likes him, so. . . .”
“So – it’s a bit like you’re studying abroad,” Victor said.
“Yeah, kinda. Mom and Dad know I’m in good hands.”
“They trust Dr. Brown that much?”
“Took them a while to come around when I first started visiting him, but now they do,” Marty confirmed. “Doc’s pretty stable for a Touched. He goes off on the science rants, sure, and he’s talked about showing them all once or twice, but he’s never mentioned wanting to kill someone. And he’s really worried about time travel breaking the universe – he’s trying to find out all he can so we can take the right precautions and stuff. He doesn’t want anybody disappearing from the time line, or the galaxy exploding.”
Victor shook his head. “This is all so different than what I was taught,” he said, fiddling with the goggles in his hands. “Everyone at home said that Touched were monsters. And that people like you were – forgive me – idiots. And that’s the kindest things they said. Pastor Galswells once gave a sermon condemning all Touched as under Satan’s influence.”
“Gee, he sounds like a nice guy,” Marty deadpanned. “I can’t imagine why you don’t want to go back and listen to him more.” Victor desperately tried to hide his snickers. “Though you’ve got me wondering now – aren’t your parents going to miss you?”
Victor felt his amusement die. “I – I suppose they will,” he said softly, thinking about the scene that had to be happening at home. His mother marching around, declaring him a ninny, his father trying to calm her without directly contradicting anything she said. . . .
“Well – I don’t think it’ll be me they miss as much as what I can do for them,” Victor admitted slowly, reaching up to fiddle with his new tie.
“Do for them? You’re their child, you think they’d miss you just for you!” Marty shook his head. “What exactly does ‘what you can do for them’ mean, anyhow?”
“They’ve a-arranged a m-m-m-marriage for me,” Victor finally got out. He hadn’t realized how much that word worried him before now.
“One of those?” Marty made a face. “You’re lucky you ended up on Doc’s train. Who with?”
“The daughter of Lord and Lady Everglot. They’re the most important people in our village – descendants of a Grand Duke,” Victor explained.
“Huh. Don’t those sort of marriages usually go the other way?” Marty said, thinking it over. “The son of an aristocrat marries some commoner’s daughter because he’s got no more money?”
“Well, that is partially why I was e-en-engaged to her,” Victor said with a shrug. “The Everglots have fallen on hard times. It’s not publically known, but Mother got it out of them. We’re fantastically rich compared to them, but we have no title, so people still look down on us. Mother and Father think that me m-m-marrying a lord’s daughter will help fix that.”
“Uh – I don’t know much about it, but I’m pretty sure becoming a noble doesn’t work like that.”
“Oh, we all know that I wouldn’t be a lord if I m-m-married her. It’s the fact that we’d be connected with such a noble family. Mother’s of the opinion it would get her on the path to having tea with the Queen one day.”
“Your mom really cares a lot about all that society stuff, doesn’t she?”
“Oh yes,” Victor said, noticing he’d untucked his tie in his nervousness and attempting to straighten it out. “She was born in the lower classes, but she’s certain she’s destined to be a part of the ‘upper crust.’ She’s always saying that, no matter our origins, we’re every bit as good as people such as the Everglots. Of course, she’s also constantly copying everything she can about aristocratic families. Father goes along with her whole-heartedly.”
Victor paused, and resumed fiddling with his tie. “I’m shy,” he said softly. “And I don’t care about parties and high tea and all the rest of it. I’m happy enough to just spend my time reading or watching the butterflies.”
“Sounds like you don’t fit in with your parents at all.”
Victor shrugged. “We – get along all right. I’m sure they care.”
Marty looked dubious, but changed the subject, much to Victor’s relief. “So, you’re getting the stuff you have on?”
“Yes, I think I am.”
“Good. Let’s grab a few more shirts and pants and stuff.”
They searched through the racks and shelves for a bit, locating a couple more basic outfits. Victor paid the young lady at the counter, and they headed back out onto the streets. “Anything else you want to get while we’re out here?” Marty asked, looking around. “Essentials?”
“Well – if you wouldn’t mind, I would like to get a new sketchbook and quill pen,” Victor admitted, swinging his clothing bag absently. “Drawing’s one of my favorite activities.”
“We should be able to do that,” Marty smiled. “Anything else?”
Victor chuckled a bit. “I don’t think you have the funds or room to buy me a piano,” he said.
“You’re a musician? So am I!”
“Really? What instrument?”
“Guitar. I like to experiment with new sounds,” he said, miming playing a guitar for a moment. “Guessing you’re into Mozart and Bach?”
“Yes, though I do some original composing myself,” Victor said, intrigued. He’d never really gotten the chance to talk to a fellow musician before. “What sort of music do you like then?”
“The lighter stuff you can dance to,” Marty replied. “I’m working on my own sound too. Something totally new.”
“Are you? I’d love to hear some sometime.”
“When we get back to the shop I’ll give you a sample,” Marty promised.
Whatever Victor had planned to say next was abruptly cut off by something black flying overhead, letting out a reptilian cry. He jerked his head up to see – Good Lord, was that a dragon?!
Marty looked up too, and grinned. “Oh, hey! The Berk Dragon Riders are in town!”
“The – you know them?” Victor said, staring at his companion.
“A little,” Marty said. “They visit regularly to get supplies and stuff. Doc’s helped out their chief’s kid a couple of times with inventions. They’re a little clan of Vikings who live in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yeah, seriously. They follow almost all of the old Viking ways. Fortunately for everybody they stop short at pillaging people.” More dragons flew overhead, in a variety of shapes and colors. “That’s the rest of the crew. Hiccup, Astrid, Fishlegs, Ruffnut and Tuffnut, and Snotlout. Yes, those are their actual names,” Marty added as Victor gaped at him disbelievingly. “I asked once – something about weird names scaring away trolls and gnomes.”
“Oh my,” Victor mumbled. “And they have pet dragons?”
“Yup! Thanks to Hiccup – they were fighting them for the longest time, but then Hiccup found out that they were all being controlled by this one big nasty dragon. Doc thinks they were a biology experiment that eventually went really wrong for the biologist. That happens a lot, honestly. I mean, Narbonic Labs has been torn down twice by giant gerbils.”
Victor stood silently for a moment, trying his best to process all of this. “I’m never going to get used to this place,” he finally declared.
“Yes you are,” Marty said firmly. “You just gotta take it a day at a time.”
“But I don’t know anything about Touched, or Creativity, or Inventions and experiments and--”
“Relax! You think Doc and I won’t teach you? Think of it as on-the-job training.” Marty gave him a friendly pat on the back. “Look, anything in particular you want to know?”
“Everything,” Victor admitted honestly.
“I think that would make your head explode.”
Victor smiled despite himself. “Well – can you at least tell me how many Touched live here?”
“Eh, it’s hard to pin down,” Marty admitted. “Some people visit for a while, some people use the place as a summer home – Lady Heterodyne comes down here sometimes. Baron Wulfenbach too.”
“Lady Heterodyne?! Isn’t she--”
“Yeah, the one with the sentient castle. I think she set up a summer yurt here.”
“A summer – yurt?”
“Yeah. From what I heard, her castle wanted to be one. I really don’t know myself.” Marty shrugged. “As for the rest, there’s Touched-run places all over the city. There’s Narbonic Labs, run by Helen Narbon the gerbil lady, there’s The Roofless, that’s owned by Flint Lockwood and his fiancée, there’s Wonderland Park, Lewis Carroll takes care of that--”
Victor, intent upon the list, suddenly found himself walking straight into someone. “Oof! Oh, I’m sorry!” he said immediately, stumbling backwards.
“It’s fine,” the person – a young lady, Victor noticed with an extra wince of guilt – said, straightening her skirt.
“–And there’s Richard Dodgson’s hat shop. Hi Alice.”
“Hello Marty,” the young lady said, brushing a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. “How are you?”
“All right. How are you?”
“Doing well.” The young lady’s eyes came to rest on Victor again. Victor shifted his weight awkwardly. “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Victor Van Dort,” Marty introduced Victor. “He’s Doc’s new assistant. Victor, this is Alice Liddell. She works at the hat shop I just told you about.”
Victor looked at Alice. She was a pretty girl – about the same height as Marty, with long, rather dark auburn hair stretching to her shoulders. She was dressed a bit unusually, in his opinion (not that anyone around here seemed to dress how he expected – Marty had been right, almost everyone had goggles on their person at the very least) – a bright blue dress that only went to about her knees, revealing knee-high black buckled boots and just a hint of black and white striped stockings. Over the dress was a white apron with two pockets, each marked with a strange black symbol. There was also a brown belt with goggles dangling from it (hers were gold-colored with yellow-tinted lenses), and – what looked like a sheath for a knife. Over it all was a red coat that looked like it had seen better days.
But what really caught his attention were her eyes. They were a brilliant green, and seemed capable of staring straight into your soul. There was something almost dangerous about those eyes – something that made you not want to challenge her in any way, lest you come away from the encounter with something missing. And yet, there was something alluring about them too, promising one more pleasant excitement if you got on her good side. . . .
Victor realized he was starting to stare and hurriedly bowed. “A p-pleasure to meet you,” he said, trying and failing to keep the stutter from his voice.
Alice curtsied appropriately, smirking a little. “Very nice to meet you as well, Master Van Dort. How long have you been working for Dr. Brown?”
“Well – t-today’s my first real day.”
“Oh. How long have you lived in the city then?”
“. . .Again, today’s my f-first real day. . . .”
“We sort of accidentally kidnapped him,” Marty said with a joking grin as Alice blinked in puzzlement. “We finally got the train flying, and we took it down to his hometown. He found it and got his foot tangled in the rope ladder Doc installed. Ended up dangling from it the entire way back – we didn’t realize he was there until we landed.”
“Really?” Alice looked at Victor again. She seemed almost impressed. “And you chose to stay with them?”
Victor nodded, resisting the urge to play with his tie some more. “T-They made me a very k-kind job offer. And there’s very l-little I have to concern me back home.”
“I’m taking him around, getting him clothes and stuff,” Marty said. “Think I should get him a hat too?”
“I’m sure Richard would like the business,” Alice said with another smirk. “It’s been a bit slow as of late.”
“You work for him?” Victor said, knowing the minute the words left his mouth how asinine they must sound. Why oh why did he fall to pieces in front of women? No wonder his mother hadn’t wanted him to talk to his arranged fiancee.
“As a clerk,” Alice nodded. “His shop is just down the street if you’d like to come in.”
“Might as well get you a hat,” Marty said, glancing up at Victor. “And he’s the best guy around.”
“All right,” Victor agreed. “Please lead on, Miss Liddell.”
“Thank you.” Alice continued her walk down the street, the two boys falling into step behind her. “Do you know everyone who lives around here?” Victor added to Marty in a quiet voice.
“Practically everybody Touched,” Marty confessed. “Most of them have had to come to Doc to get something fixed. That’s a good way to tell if one of them is a jerk or not, by the way – if he just seems embarrassed, he’s okay; if he’s acting like it’s a major blow to his ego, he’s probably got a stick up his ass.”
“Marty! There’s a lady right in front of us!” Victor said, shocked.
“Alice? She doesn’t care about swearing, trust me,” Marty grinned at him.
“Still, it’s quite rude.”
“Wait until you see her angry,” Marty said, jerking his head at Alice. “Then you’ll see rude.”
The hat shop was right on the street corner. A large and colorful sign shaped like a top hat declared it “The Mad Hatter Haberdashery.” The shop itself was red, with two large windows in the front and a door made of clear glass. Stacked in the windows were a variety of men and women’s hats, all in different colors and with different accessories. It was like looking at a rainbow people could wear on their heads. Victor lingered for a moment to admire them, then noticed the others had gone inside without him and hurried to catch up.
The inside of the shop was even odder than the outside. Three of the walls appeared to be made up of various cogs, gears, and wheels, all fused together into a brassy mess. The fourth was plain white – or, at least, it had been before someone had started scribbling on it. Scattered all over were notes done in tiny handwriting. There were more hats on shelves attached to the walls, and a couple on hat racks in the corners. There was a tiny counter near the back, painted a rather odd shade of green – Alice went toward that, taking off her coat as she went. And to one side of the shop were a couple of arm chairs that had the backs half cut off, and a number of odd-looking machines. Victor tried for a moment to figure out what they did, then gave up. “Very nice shop,” he said, for lack of anything better.
“Thank you.” Alice hung her coat on a little hook in the wall. “Shall I fetch Richard then?”
“Yeah,” Marty said, picking up a rather fancy yellow lady’s hat, with a large peacock feather and a little gear stuck into the brim and examining it. “Victor, try not to stare too much.”
“I beg your pardon?” Victor asked.
“Richard looks a bit unusual,” Alice said, proceeding to a door set into the white wall. She opened it and stuck her head in. “Richard?”
There was a sudden crash! from the other side of the door. “You’re late for tea!” a voice yelled petulantly.
“March, really. I’m never even invited to these tea parties of yours.”
“Your hair wants cutting still,” a second, somewhat more nasally voice said.
“And your nose wants shrinking. Come here, you’ve got a customer.”
“A customer?” There was the scraping sound of a chair being pushed back, then footsteps on stairs. Alice cleared the doorway as a figure emerged. “Aha! Welcome to the shop!”
Victor couldn’t help it – he stared. The man standing there was, to put it as kindly as possible, odd. For one thing, he was quite tall – tall enough for Victor to have to look up to meet his eyes. For another, he seemed to be wearing a strait-waistcoat as a shirt! It had all the buckles and straps common to those jackets, and a length of fabric dangled from each sleeve. He was also wearing a top hat that had to add at least an extra foot to his height, checked white and black with strange symbols marked all over it with black or red ink. He carried a crooked cane in one hand, which was topped with a silver teapot decoration. And his face – his face appeared to be at least half-nose, but that was fairly easy to deal with. What wasn’t so easy to deal with was the fact that the man’s face was green. “Hello,” he said after a moment.
“He’s new to Secundus,” Marty said, putting back the hat he’d been looking at. “Doc just hired him on. We’re getting him clothes.”
“Doc’s taken on a new assistant? He always seemed perfectly content with just you,” the man – Victor guessed he was Richard Dodgson – commented.
“They kidnapped him,” Alice said, a bit of a laugh in her voice. “By accident. And Master Van Dort chose to stay here rather than go back.”
“Did he? How horrible is it where you live?”
Alice rolled her eyes as Victor blinked. “Do forgive him, he has absolutely no tact,” she told Victor, taking a seat behind the counter.
“It’s a simple question, and he ought to be able to answer it,” Mr. Dodgson protested, turning toward her.
Victor’s jaw dropped. Mr. Dodgson had gears sticking out of him! Two at the backs of his knees, two at his elbows – along with bits of stick – and a big one in the center of his back! “What are--” he started, then caught himself. This was Secundus – was it really all that surprising that a man would make himself into an Automaton? “I’m t-terribly sorry, t-that was rude--”
Mr. Dodgson gave him an appraising look. “You really are new here, aren’t you?” he said calmly, leaning on his cane.
Victor blushed and looked down at his feet, twisting his tie in his hands. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, voice soft. “We haven’t a-anything like this in Burtonsville. The p-people there w-wouldn’t tolerate it.”
“Sounds boring. Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
Victor blinked, looking up again. “I b-beg your pardon?”
“You’ve done nothing to offend me.”
Victor was honestly surprised at that answer – he would have thought for sure asking “what” Mr. Dodgson was would have qualified. “I – er – I meant, what did you mean by that?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea. That’s why I’m asking you.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea either.”
“Good, then we’re in agreement. Now then, a hat!” Mr. Dodgson clapped his hands together, producing an oddly wooden sound. He looked Victor up and down a few times. “I know your type. You don’t wear a hat often. Only for special occasions. And you’d favor a top hat for those. Black.” He frowned as Victor marveled at his perception. “You’re almost a tintype, you know.”
“They’re all like that over in Burtonsville,” Marty spoke up. “Doc and I took a walk around the place while we were parked. The entire place is nothing but grey, grey, grey.”
“It’s a bit more than that,” Victor protested, feeling he should defend the integrity of his hometown.
“Okay, there’s black and white too,” Marty smirked.
Victor wanted to say something else, but found that he really couldn’t. The place was grey, even he couldn’t deny that. Wasn’t that part of the reason he was staying here? “I’m sure there’s color somewhere,” he finally said, shrugging.
“Maybe it all bled into the ground during a rainstorm, and no one bothered to dig it up for all the mud,” Mr. Dodgson said, moving closer and examining the top of Victor’s head. “Take off the goggles, please?” Victor did so. Mr. Dodgson leaned down and examined Victor’s forehead. “We need to get you some color,” he declared. “The vest and tie are a step in the right direction. The trouble is that pale skin of yours washes everything else out. But I don’t want to put pure black upon that black hair, no one could tell where your head ends and the hat begins.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, his pale grey eyes fixed upon the top of Victor’s head. “Maybe a very dark grey, just enough not to be black, and a bright blue hat band. . . .”
“Whatever you think is best,” Victor said, feeling a bit uncomfortable with all the staring. He felt like he was a particularly interesting hat stand to this fellow.
“Don’t let him bully you,” Alice said from her position from behind the counter. “He likes to make personal remarks.”
“I’m not bullying anyone,” Mr. Dodgson said, shaking his cane at her. “I am making observations appropriate to my business. If – I never did get your name,” he said suddenly, looking discombobulated.
“Victor Van Dort,” Victor provided.
“Van Dort? Like the fish people?”
“Yes. My father owns the cannery.”
“Why doesn’t he ever can snarks?” a different voice said from the region of the door. It sounded like the one that had yelled at Alice for being late to tea. “Those would be lovely on toast.”
“I’ve never heard--” Victor started as the turned toward the voice. Then he stopped, mostly because it appeared the owner of the voice was a large bipedal brown hare wearing a jacket, with straw tangled in his fur. “Of a snark,” he managed after a moment.
“Then you’re poorly informed,” the hare told him. “Even Dormy knows what snarks are, and he sleeps all day.”
“The Dormouse,” Alice provided, looking amused. “And this is the March Hare. We call him March for short.”
“A p-pleasure,” Victor said, feeling once again out of his depth. How Marty ever expects me to get used to all this. . .then again, perhaps it’s just a matter of surviving the first day.
The March Hare looked him up and down. “You’re too thin,” he declared, and disappeared through the door again.
“Yes – if I put my hat on you, I suspect it would slip down your ears and cover you from head to foot,” Mr. Dodgson agreed, pulling up one sleeve. Victor saw that the man’s arms were wooden sticks with metal joints. He held up his hand and shook a tape measure out of his glove. “Though, that might be useful in some cases,” he continued, Creativity leaking into his voice as he used the tape measure to measure Victor’s head. “A hat you could live in! With a tea room, and a proper laboratory, and a bed that folds out from the brim. . . .” He dropped the tape measure onto Victor’s shoulders and hurried over to the white wall, picking up a pen and inkwell and scribbling notes onto a spare patch of white. “Yes, yes, this really could work. . . .”
“He’ll be back to you in a moment,” Alice said, unconcerned, as Victor watched Mr. Dodgson write. “He does this all the time.”
Victor was about to reply when two brown paws forced a plate piled high with tea cakes into his hands. Startled, he stumbled backwards, falling into one of the chairs. Somehow, he avoided spilling the cakes. The March Hare leaned over him. “Haven’t broken, have you?” he asked, looking the young man up and down.
“N-no,” Victor said, feeling quite intimidated.
“You look like you will. You look like you’d smash to pieces at any moment. Are you made out of porcelain?”
“No, I’m c-completely flesh and b-blood.”
“No bones?” the March Hare said, looking surprised.
“Of course I have bones!”
“Aha! Then you’re not completely flesh and blood, are you?”
“They like to be literal as well,” Alice said, looking like she was enjoying the scene. “He just moved here, March. You need to be careful with him.”
“I am being careful! That’s what the cakes are for!”
Victor nearly said “I beg your pardon” again, but quickly realized that wouldn’t get him anywhere. “I don’t understand.”
“You are too thin,” the March Hare repeated, gesturing at Victor’s face with a paw. “So we must fill you up with something. I thought you’d prefer tea cakes to water or air or mercury.”
“. . .Yes, I would,” Victor said slowly. Worried that the March Hare would get upset if he didn’t at least make the effort, he picked up one of the little cakes and took a bite.
To his surprise, the cake was actually quite good. Victor made a pleased noise. “Mmm!”
“Yeah, that’s one thing you have to give them,” Marty said, leaning against the other chair. “These guys know how to set a good tea table.”
“One does not stop time at six o’clock and have tea for ages without learning a few things,” the March Hare said proudly. “We shall have him looking like a normal human being in no time.”
Mr. Dodgson finally completed his scribbling and went over to where Victor was seated. He remeasured the young man’s head, then held the measuring tape up perpendicularly to it. “There we are,” he said, apparently satisfied with whatever reading he’d gotten. “We’ll have you properly outfitted in just a moment.” He hurried over to his machines and began to fiddle with them, pulling out swatches of fabric and filling some sort of reservoir beneath one. Then he pulled a lever.
A great blast of steam came out of one end of the first machine. It began to rock gently as mechanical arms manipulated a large piece of slate gray felt, stitching it here and there and generally shaping it into a hat. The hat was then brought over to the next machine, which immersed it in some sort of liquid and manipulated it some more, making it properly stiff. The third machine cut a length of blue ribbon and sewed it into a hatband, then blasted the hat with hot air to dry it. Within ten minutes, the entire process was done. Mr. Dodgson picked up the completed article, examined it, then plopped it on Victor’s head. The top of his hat opened, and an accordion-style mechanical arm popped out holding a mirror. “There! What do you think?”
Victor shook off the sudden appearance of an extra limb from the top of someone’s head and looked at himself. He wasn’t usually one for hats, but this one complimented his face very well. Mr. Dodgson had been right – the grey looked better against his hair than black would have. And the blue of the band reminded him of one of his favorite types of butterflies at home. He smiled up at the taller man. “It’s wonderful.” Mr. Dodgson beamed.
“You haven’t filled out at all,” the March Hare commented, examining Victor’s sides.
“Well, I doubt a few tea cakes will help,” Victor admitted. “Though they are delicious.”
“A few?” Marty said, raising an eyebrow. “Victor, you’ve practically eaten the whole plate!”
Victor looked down. Sure enough, only a lonely few cakes were left on the plate. “Oh! I didn’t even realize,” he said, turning pink with embarrassment. “I just started eating them, and--”
“Don’t blush, it clashes with your hatband,” Mr. Dodgson scolded.
“And we just had breakfast, too. . . .” Marty looked half-amused, half-worried. “How much is it gonna cost us to feed you?”
“I really don’t eat that much,” Victor said, handing the plate back to the March Hare. “I just have a terrible sweet tooth.”
“How terrible is it?” the March Hare asked. “Does it go on raids or order people’s heads chopped off?”
“Well, I will admit to biting the heads off of a fair amount of chocolate rabbits in my time,” Victor admitted with a shy smile.
“Pah, chocolate rabbits. Horrible conversationalists,” the March Hare said dimissively. “Especially after you eat their ears.” Victor giggled.
“Sweet tooth, huh?” Marty grinned, almost evilly. “You ever try Wonka chocolate?”
“Er, no. I’ve heard of it, but Mother would never let me buy any due to Mr. Wonka being a Touched.”
“Oh, I have got to get you to taste some.” Marty glanced over at Mr. Dodgson. “How much for the hat?”
“Ten shillings will be fine, we’re all friends,” Mr. Dodgson said. He patted Victor on the shoulder. “You’ll have to come to one of our tea parties.”
“He gets an invite and I don’t?” Alice said, although from the smile on her face she didn’t take any real offense.
“You will show up invited or not,” the March Hare said in a rare show of logic. “We may as well not invite you.”
“Because it gives you the excuse to throw things at me?”
“Come off it, you throw things right back.”
“They’re gonna be at this for a while,” Marty said, offering Victor a hand up. “Come on, I’ll take you to the candy shop. You’ll be thanking me later.”
“All right.” Victor waved goodbye to everyone with a smile. “It was very nice to meet you all.”
“Very nice to meet you,” Mr. Dodgson said, tipping his hat. “Good luck with Doc, and tell him hello.”
Alice nodded in Victor’s direction. “Have a good day, Master Van Dort.”
“You as well, Miss Liddell.” Victor looked at her for a minute longer as Marty pulled him out the door. Those green eyes of hers still fascinated him, even if he couldn’t quite pin down why. Maybe – maybe later, I should get another hat made. . . .