By John M. Burt
The door to Dr. Brandreth’s home was answered by a dusky hoover who bowed and touched his fingertips to his lips to let Locke know he was mute. Locke gave the hoover his card and expected to have to wait while it was conveyed inside, but the hoover looked closely at it, nodded and gestured for Locke to follow. The hoover led him to a small room furnished only with two chairs and a low table between them. A carafe and glasses stood on the table, and the footman offered by gesture to pour Locke a drink. Locke nodded, and the hoover poured a glass of what appeared to be water, and then left. Locke sipped cautiously and found that it was indeed water -- wonderfully clear spring water, recently drawn, he would say. He’d almost finished his glass when the door opened again and a very thin man with grayish skin and snow-white hair entered, accompanied by another hoover with the same dusky hue that indicated his face and hands, at least, had come from a man with dark skin, probably an old slave whose remains had been sold to make hoovers after his death.
The hoover gave Locke the same “mute’s salute”, and Brandreth seemed to echo his servant by holding up an index finger asking for patience.
Once Brandreth was seated, the grey-faced footman left the room and returned pushing a wheeled machine with a long pump handle on its top. He uncoiled a black rubber hose and attached it to a leather bag like what was in a set of bagpipes and placed the bag in Brandreth’s lap. Next, he undid Brandreth’s ascot to reveal a valve implanted in the notch between his collarbones. The hoover uncoiled a smaller hose attached to the bag and attached it to Brandreth’s valve. The hoover began working the pump, and the bag filled with air. After a few strokes, Brandreth opened his mouth, pressed down on the bag like a piper, and spoke.
“Good afternoon, Mister Locke. I’m sorry I had to wait so long to greet you, but I lacked the breath to speak. Had my lungs removed. Cancer, you know.”
Locke had known about Brandreth’s cancer, but not how he had dealt with it. Given the bizarre conditions under which he spoke, Brandreth’s voice was quite clear and normal sounding.
This, Locke realized, was the meaning behind the “Dr. Lackobreath” sketch at the Prometheus Club: a satire on Dr. Brandreth’s condition. Locke repressed the urge to shudder at this seeming callousness and briskly opened his notebook.
“Doctor, as you know I am investigating the death of Gideon Bullivant.”
“Yes. We were not closely acquainted, but I knew his reputation. His death was certainly a loss to the field.”
Another silent, dusky servant entered, this one wearing a cook’s dress and apron. She carried a bucket with a long hose dangling from it, and a jar of liquid. As she hung the bucket from a hook on the wall, Locke thought this was an additional part of Brandreth’s speaking apparatus, but then she rolled up the doctor’s sleeve, tied a thong around his arm to make the veins swell up, and jabbed the needle at the end of the hose into her master’s arm. Locke tried not to look, but noticed that there was a long track of fading marks down his arm, presumably from earlier infusions.
The cook opened the jar and poured a substance that smelled of bleach into the bucket. As she untied the thong, Locke heard Brandreth interrupt his monologue momentarily with a soft hiss.
“Not as comfortable or as convenient as respiration, I fear,” Brandreth said regretfully, “but better than the alternative.”
“Well, Dr. Brandreth, you say Dr. Bullivant’s death was a loss to the field. How would you describe his place in it?”
Brandreth pressed down on the bag and opened his mouth in a long breathy sigh. He shook his head.
“I can talk all right with this contraption, but a sigh doesn’t feel like a sigh, and I miss the ability.”
He pushed out another long and presumably unsatisfying sigh, evidently in honor of the lost sighs of bygone days.
Despite his sighing, though, Bradreth seemed to be looking healthier than he had when he’d entered: his skin had taken on a ruddy pinkish hue, his lips had become almost shockingly red, making an even stronger contrast with his snowy hair.
“Bullivant was inventive and innovative, while still being a gentleman. He understood what things could be cast aside and what had to be held onto. Not like . . . not like some, who think innovation means throwing out everything old and embracing anything new just because it is new.”
Brandreth muffled a belch.
“Please excuse me. That always happens when I’m getting my oxidizer.”
Brandreth belched again, and giggled.
“Oh, Flora, you must get me a match!”
“So, Doctor, you were saying?”
“Oh, you must let me show you, Mister Locke, this is simply too droll!”
“Yes, Dr. Brandreth, of course, but –”
The hoover brought a box of matches. Brandreth took one and lit it, holding it close to his mouth. After a moment, he belched again, and the flame leapt up vigorously, burning up the matchstick in an instant.
Brandreth gasped in pain and shook out the match, sucked at his burnt fingertips, still giggling.
“You see? Pure oxygen!”
Locke put away his notebook, thanked Dr. Brandreth and offered him his hand. The old vitalogist giggled and slapped Locke’s palm in a way he had previously only seen Freedmen do by way of greeting.
Leaving Dr. Brandreth’s home, Locke noticed that it had become quite dark. It was later than he had supposed.
He ought to send a telegram to the Sun offices to update Mr. Day about his progress. Down the block he saw the unmistakable silhouette of a constable, tall leather helmet on his head and billy club on his belt.
“Officer,” Locke began as he approached the constable’s back, realizing how tall he was as he approached.
The constable executed a military about-face and Locke saw he was a hoover.
“I beg your pardon, Citizen, but I am no officer, merely a Leatherhead. How may I help you?”
Locke was startled into silence for an awkwardly long time. He’d heard that some cities were deploying hoovers as police auxiliaries, but the practice hadn’t reached New York. Even the fact that the “Leatherhead” could talk was a bit startling after the silence of Brandreth’s servants.
“Er, sorry – could you, er, direct me to the nearest post office?”
The hoover inclined his head politely.
“Certainly, Citizen. Just go past that corner to the next one and turn left onto Delancy Street. You can’t miss it.”
Locke nodded and turned away. He’d almost thanked the hoover, but figured he had already lowered himself enough by apologizing for his falling silent.
The post office was indeed hard to miss, with its carved wooden figure of a hoover mailman standing out front and a cast-zinc eagle spreading its gilt wings above the door. It was built of marble-veneered brick and took up about half the block, flanked by a grocery store and a tavern that held the corners. It projected an air of solid civic life: security, stability, reliability. It seemed to promise not merely that people’s mail would be delivered quickly and securely, but that all the organs of civilization were in working order.
That sense of stability was somewhat tempered once Locke pushed through the doors into the noisy rush of work. It seemed as though the post office were being used to its limits just at the moment, with people waiting in long lines as human and hoover postal clerks hurried back and forth with carts piled high with sacks of letters and stacks of packages. Three long lines of people mailing letters and postcards, two for packages, one each for telegrams and for messenger ravens.
Locke found the end of the line for telegrams and took his place. To his relief, the line did at least move quickly.
When he neared the head of the line, he saw that a human clerk was training a hoover clerk. Fortunately, the hoover’s training had reached the point where his teacher merely had to watch him perform his task and offer occasional cues when he strayed or hesitated. Locke took up his place at the marble counter and grabbed a yellow pad of telegram blanks. He hastily filled in the form, copying over his scribbled notes in a neat hand and using the Sun’s standard abbreviation codes. By the time he reached the window, he had his interview with Brandreth ready to send to the Sun’s rewrite desk, on three neatly-lettered yellow forms.
As the clerk was checking the address for Locke’s telegram, Locke looked over the hoover’s shoulder and saw two long rows of desks. One was clearly hoover telegraphers, thin silvery strands of nerve tissue grafted to their forearms, their hands tracing over the letters on yellow telegraph sheets. Locke had seen telegraphers like these since he was a boy.
The opposite row was like nothing Locke had ever seen before. Normally there would be a second row of hoovers in chairs, scratching out messages in response to the signals coming through their nerve grafts (afferent nerves, Locke recalled from somewhere, as opposed to the efferent nerves of the sending telegraphers – or was it the other way around?). Here, there was only a sort of long table, with pens held by disembodied hands that moved in response to their own nerve grafts. The hands hung suspended in braces, liquid dripping into their veins through tubes from hanging bottles of pale golden fluid, and ink into their pens from black bottles, also through tubes.
A hoover clerk moved up and down the aisle between the hoovers and the hands, delivering slips to the telegraphers and collecting finished messages from the hands.
As Locke handed over his telegram, the human clerk noticed him staring at the bodiless hands.
“The moving finger writes, eh? It’s the latest thing. We used to need a whole hoover with a nerve graft to receive telegrams. Now it’s just the hand, and all we have to feed it is a tablespoon of honey and half a cup of Demikhov’s Oxygenator in a quart of water.”
Locke managed to control his nausea sufficiently to nod and say, “Much cheaper, no doubt.”
There was a commotion off to Locke’s right, shouts and flappings and a voice like a rusty door hinge shrieking “Nevermore!”
A raven had suddenly started fussing while a message was being dictated to it.
“Nevermore!” the bird cried again, launching itself into the air.
A senior clerk called out, “It’s gone bad -- wring its neck!”
Clerks reached for it but it eluded their fingers. The bird circled near the ceiling two or three times, still repeating that same word, then flew out an open window. Its black-feathered body was instantly invisible in the dark of night.
The clerks shrugged and went back to their work, and Locke supposed it was really just a small accident in the workplace, no great harm done, yet there was something deeply disturbing about the whole incident....
“Sorry about that, Sir,” the telegraph clerk said calmly. “Will you be waiting for a reply?”
Only then did Locke realize he was still standing at the window. He shook himself.
“Er, no, thank you.”
Locke moved out of the way. As he left the post office, he wondered why the incident with the raven had so shaken him. He wondered if it were simply the mournful sound of the word, “nevermore” itself. That thought led him to considering the character of the various sounds of the English language, a subject which was still occupying his mind as he prepared for bed.