My father, my dead mother and my two kidnapped brothers stare down at me from the exhibit stall. The Truth Is No Prisoner To Time! proclaims the signage that wreathes them. Dr. Dodson’s Photoplate Wizardry Unlocks The Secret Of Aging!
“Imogen?” Posthumus elbows his way through the crowds to my side. A paper cone full of waffles occupies his hands; pamphlets peep out from his pockets, along with his gloves. He looks to Dr. Dodson’s display. “That seems a bit crass.”
The false photographs are a towering act of imagination. Toddlers have become grown princes at Dr. Dodson’s hand. Have You Seen These Men? Find Lost Loved Ones Among Us! reads one placard; another, Gaze Into The Future, Recreate The Past—See Yourself At Any Age! My likeness has been placed next to the supposed face of Arviragus, my immediate elder. His doctored image borrows generously from mine, for the resemblance is certainly striking. My mother glows; they have used her wedding portrait, specially photographed to send to Augustus Caesar. My father looks pugnacious and regal, as befits a king of the Britons. I shake my head at the waffles Posthumus offers, but glance back at the pictures. “I am not entirely convinced.”
He pushes his spectacles up his nose. “It’s very clever, though, how they’ve done the manipulations.”
“Have you found your profession, then?”
Posthumus smiles and bows his head. “You see me through. I wish to make my name among the ranks of forgers, and all the Empire will fall before me.”
We are in public; I cannot nudge him. “You’d never have known if you hadn’t come.”
“Look who’s talking.” He pulls one of the waffles from his cone, already translucent with grease. “I told you it wouldn’t be so bad here.”
For my part, I am still reserving that answer. Posthumus has been eager for the Minervan Exposition since we learned it would come to Londinium, after an absence of seventeen years. It is a reward for good behavior, one which has already benefitted Belgica, Hispania and Gaul many times over. With the Minervan Exposition come the eyes of the world, along with industry, infrastructure and diplomatic generosity. Britain is still a far edge of the empire; my father considers this quite the coup.
Posthumus loves the machines. All the greatest inventors of the age flock here, to flaunt their wares and creations. It is, as we say in speeches and print, a testament to the ingenuity of our fair isle, to stand alongside the greatness of the continent as equals. Though he has been raised alongside me, Posthumus is the poorest sort of gentleman: an orphan, of Roman and British extraction, and one who has only his good name to support him. He seeks his own way, hoping to use both his intellect and his hands. Here, he is eager as a child at the circus.
The Minervan Exposition fills me with unease. Each device seems an opportunity for something horrible to come of it. I never felt this way as a girl, but since the last time we hosted the imperial fair, few have been my nightmares without some unknowable contraption at their core. Still, I am not here for the machines. I put the doctored family portrait at my back. “Isn’t that demonstration soon?”
“Yes, at three.” Posthumus searches the wall until he finds a clock. “We should hurry! It’s bound to be crowded.”
I check over my shoulder for Helen, my aide. She nods as we make eye contact, and we set off, Helen a few innocuous paces behind us. “I’ve heard Rigantona’s a show-stopper,” Posthumus remarks. A daub of powdered sugar sits at the corner of his lips.
“So you’ve mentioned, several times.”
“Don’t parry me, Imogen. I know you’re interested. Remind me again when she’ll be dining at court.”
“Tomorrow,” I say, and he smiles. “I must line up my compliments!” I insist, and he smirks. I tug at my gloves. “It would not do to meet her unprepared.”
“She’s not a hapless chieftain to cow into voting your way.” He bites into another waffle. “I only wonder why you left it so late.”
“Likewise. You might have come here without me.”
“Some things are best enjoyed shared,” he says archly.
Commensurate with the interest she generates, this Rigantona has a hall far at the back of the exhibition palace. A separate ticket must be purchased to witness her works. The bustle hides us; we pass through the crowds unheeded, as Britons and Romans alike enjoy our latest technical feats. One woman has built a miniature model of a purification system that produces, from the sewers, potable water crisper and fresher than an aquifer’s. Next to the thunderous cooling-bellows which keep the palace bearable is a freestanding room which, if the signs are credible, admits no sound from outside. A Greek fellow with a red cap keeps watch over a table of small automatons; as we pass, one is inking names on scraps of parchment.
Above us, room by room, the watchful gods stand sentry: Ceres over the threshers and catalogs of seeds, Mars by the repeating rifles and plumed helmets, Vulcan with the beaten brass friezes and flickering praxinoscopes. Perched on high, covering every corner, sits proud Minerva herself, her owls adorning all the columns and lampposts. Past her, clouds rush overhead. When this place was new, I loved the greenhouse ceiling crowning it, the iron and glass mosaic mirroring the tiles at our feet. The palace has cleaned up well, after so many years vacant. Every few steps, until I unclench my jaw, I skirt the sensation that I am eight again.
The crowd is thick at the far hall, even with twenty minutes to spare. Flanking the doors stand two canvas banners, hand-painted in a brazenly native style. WIRELESS DEVICES: ON THEIR POWERS AND APPLICATIONS; AN ADVANTAGE FOR AND OF BRITAIN. Beneath this is her name, Rigantona, clarissima femina. I could scoff, but from what I know of her, she is a distinguished woman. The last exposition adored her, and Posthumus has keenly followed talk of her comeback.
Posthumus searches over the hats and heads in the foyer, but the doors aren’t open yet. He sighs, his paper cone empty and crumpled in his hand. I can’t resist how wide open he leaves himself. “Someday you’ll be good at hurry up and wait.” Yet even as I say it, my smile falls away. “Oh no.” Posthumus has enough time to knit his brow; then Iudocus, the chieftain from Sulloniacis, corners us.
“My dear Lady Imogen!” He plucks off his bowler. His drooping mustache flaps as he speaks. “What an excellent surprise.” I have no choice but to wish him well. In an instant, Helen is at my shoulder; I touch her elbow, and she lets us continue. Posthumus I know has melted away — presumably in search of a trash bin, but in truth, he never associates with me when I am on business. Without privacy or anonymity, we are separate. I marvel at whatever gift allows him to become so invisible when he is so very tall.
“I have been meaning to make an appointment with you,” says Iudocus, leaning close. His face is quite red above his collar. “Have you heard the news from Illyria?”
“My lord, while I welcome your company, I’m here as a matter of leisure today.” I stand my ground, but in his attempt to be discreet, Iudocus crowds me just enough to lose my goodwill.
“Quite so, quite so.” His eyes dart around us. “But surely your father the King will have some statement soon.”
I must cut him off. “You know quite well that no one has my father’s ear. What is it you hope I can do for you, sir?”
“You have your channels, my lady.” He shifts his weight. “My people are asking questions. It’s almost unthinkable, rebellion! Against the Romans?”
“Indeed it is, and I appreciate your concern. If I may refer you to Helen, she is the proper channel through which to initiate such a discussion.” He stammers as I excuse myself.
“There hasn’t been more, has there?” Helen murmurs. “Other than Dalmatia and Pannonia?”
“No.” But my father knows of it. He doesn’t seek my counsel, but I have come upon him pouring over maps and telegraphs. The Dalmatians and Pannonians have refused to pay Rome the tribute that is the price of their peace. I must wonder which people Iudocus means who are so concerned. Today we passed a cluster of sign-wavers standing in solidarity within sight of the gates. Some centurion surely made certain those signs were properly disposed of. Far more often such sentiment stays in the public houses, where Cassibelan’s surrender to Julius Caesar moves those deep in their cups.
Posthumus reappears, and Helen hands us both our tickets. At last, the doors swing outward. “Here we go.” Posthumus wags his eyebrows and shoots me a giddy grin.
We swarm into an auditorium, standing room only. The stage glows under a warm, rich light. I almost expect a puppet show or a masque, though the backdrop illustrates the basic principles of waveforms, rather than a pastoral scene. We are not close to the front, but once I am recognized, a few individuals tuck their elbows in, and though I am not so lanky as Posthumus, I have a clear view of the proceedings. Three tables, all on wheels, stand ready at center stage. One holds an array of simple devices, but sheets conceal whatever sits on the other two.
Something in my chest floods me with a chill; I cannot say why. The thrum of the crowd suggests nothing sinister. I take a steadying breath and catch Posthumus’s eye. “In your professional estimation, what do you suppose that could be?”
He glances over the tops of his spectacles and shrugs. “If I’m to be a professional at this, you’ll have to help me.”
His cheek warms me a little. “And here I was about to suggest we approach the lady after her presentation.”
Posthumus laughs. “My ingratitude thwarts me again!”
A fanfare silences the room. From behind the velvet curtains steps Rufus Sergius, one of the curators of the exhibition. “Friends, ladies, gentlemen,” he booms. “It is both my great pleasure and distinct honor to introduce someone who, in truth, needs no introduction.” I glance at the faces in the crowd. Some are more rapt than others, but all are paying attention. Sergius is nearly beside himself. I wonder if he does this every day. “We are so proud to welcome her back so triumphantly to the Minervan Exposition. You may tell your grandchildren how today, you stood in a room with perhaps the greatest mind of our time. May I present to you Britain’s own Rigantona!”
As we applaud, a woman emerges from the wings. She walks with a straight back and an easy smile. A few enthusiasts whistle, perhaps at her high cheekbones and dark eyes. Even Posthumus remarks how he thought she’d look older. I would put her in her middle forties, and congratulate her for her handsomeness.
“My dear Sergius.” She presses her palm to her heart, as they do in the countryside. “Thank you for such kind words.” He bows from the waist and surrenders the floor. The room grows hushed but for the rustling of clothes. Some recollection scratches at the base of my neck, some impression too distant to place. Rigantona clasps her hands. “I will not waste your time: you have all bought your tickets and read the signs at the entrance. I come to you today to shed light on a great opportunity for our island.
“Britain is a rich country, in people and in arts. Our tradition of metalwork is a long and storied one. These very halls speak of our command of iron and bronze.” She nods toward her audience; I find myself watching her more closely. “What you will witness on this stage is entirely ours, from the coal that fueled the forges to the ore that makes the machine. It is my sincerest hope that you leave this room — and indeed, this exhibition itself — with a tenfold appreciation for our national genius.”
At a signal from Rigantona, a page emerges and pushes the uncovered table to the front of the stage. Rigantona begins a slow circuit of the floor. “Right now, the world runs on connection. From our roads to our aqueducts to the imperial network of cables, we are bound together with matter; we live tied to the solid.” She gives us all a knowing, significant look. “But is that life? The most vital connections come to us by speech, which cannot be touched, even if it can be felt.
“I propose a future cut like the Gordian knot. I believe progress means freeing us from the old modes.”
“Are you listening to this?” Helen whispers. I am still thinking on Rigantona’s gesture, and clarissima femina, and how I might place her accent.
Rigantona picks up a pair of boxes and hands one to the page. A long stem sways from the top of each; both stems ends in a light bulb. Rigantona crosses the stage and holds her box high. “This simple device contains a signaling mechanism that emits a wave, like the sound of your voice issuing a command. The other device contains a receiver. Observe the effect when I initiate the wave.”
She flips one of two switches on her box, and the filament at the end of her stem flares on, as it should. She flips the second, and fifteen feet away, untouched, the page’s bulb glows as well. The crowd applauds and murmurs as the page slowly turns his box, revealing no switches or trickery. “They must run on batteries,” Posthumus says. “Will she talk about that, I wonder?”
My eyes stay fixed on the stage. “We may ask her after if she does not.”
Rigantona smiles at us again and sets her box aside. “That is the most basic version of this phenomenon. Everything else is an elaboration. But we can work marvels when we’re freed of wires.” She gestures for the second table, which is brought forth. With a flourish, she reveals a tall glass chamber. She nods to the page, who ducks under the table. On a tier underneath sits a plump generator, perched below the tank. A foot of empty air gapes between its top and the table.
The page yanks a lever, and the whole room gasps. A multitude of shimmering butterflies surge into the glass chamber, their wings clattering against its walls. Rigantona lifts the lid and the butterflies pour out. Cries of alarm turn quickly to delight. Posthumus stretches high and snatches one midair. He laughs and slowly opens his fingers. “They’re mechanical!” He offers it to me; the contraption flutters gently on his palm, its wings stiff paper, its body intricate copper and circuits. When he tips it into my hand, it rights itself with delicate jointed legs.
Rigantona beams. “Keep them, with my compliments!” she calls over the hubbub. “Save one. Who among you caught a green moth?”
A hand shoots up at the back wall of the theater. Rigantona squints into the lights. “Stay right where you are, please. I’d like you to help me with this.” She beckons the page again, and he tugs the final table forward. I watch the covered devices with a sudden twist in my gut. The sound of the audience dies away: in that moment, all I know is how much I don’t want her to unveil that table.
Metal bites into my hand. I open a fist to find the butterfly’s wings crumpled. Posthumus is watching the stage. I tug at Helen’s sleeve; she furrows her brow, and I deposit the souvenir in her pocket.
Rigantona pulls back this cover with less art. Calmly, she lets the room see the wide bell of a gramophone. We watch, I stock-still and the rest enthralled, as she attends to the second machine, a small tower capped with a metal tube: her power source, freestanding. It begins to hum, and she approaches the edge of the stage again.
Dimly I hear her against the thrashing of my heart: “I’m going to ask you a question, madame. Do you have the moth in your hand still?” Everyone else turns: my eye is fixed on the generator. Rigantona smiles and clasps her hands again. “Now, when you answer my question, do not shout, but speak into your hand, to the moth. Ready? Madame, please, what is your favorite meal?”
Helen leans close. “Imogen?”
The generator shimmers. A film of mottled light distorts the air close above it. A terror seizes me; I reach out and grasp Posthumus by the hand. He frowns at me, startled, but his fingers close over mine.
“Roast suckling pig,” says a woman’s voice from the bell onstage. “Oh!”
The room erupts. Rigantona lifts her hands high, drinking in the torrent of cheers. Furious conversation burbles all around us. Above us, the green moth sails back to Rigantona’s shoulder; its wings are a jade epaulet.
Posthumus covers our hands with his own. I search his face, like a silly heroine from a penny dreadful. “I have to leave.” My voice has gone throaty, and unsteady as my knees.
Helen’s arm circles my waist. “Back to the palace, then.”
“You must stay,” I tell Posthumus. “I’m sure this is nothing. It’s so close in here.” He lets go of my hands.
“You’re never unwell.”
My face is finally hot again. “You mustn’t cut short—”
“I would rather come with you,” he says.
The nightmare comes more vividly than ever tonight: the maze of equipment, the fear of being found, the smell of ozone and axle grease, the crushing, uncertain quiet. Posthumus and I never stray from each other’s sight. We’re all ages; it never matters when we are.
The dream always ends in the storeroom. We find the machine, smooth and faceless and towering. We feel it thrumming through our feet. The sphere at its top shimmers. We never have any warning. A pearlescent glow engulfs the machine, and it lashes out at us. My vision whites out. I feel the wind sucked from my chest. I’m thrown to the ground. Before I can see, before I can feel my legs, I reach for Posthumus. I grab his wrist and haul us both to our feet.
We run, and never make it home. I never let go of Posthumus. Behind us, caught, his voice persists, screaming and crying out.
Hi, and thanks for reading! Got some feelings? I would love to hear your thoughts. All content © Esther Bergdahl, 2011. Thanks again, and hope you enjoy!