The ping had a quality, Claudia remarked, that suggested the artifact was particularly happy to be used.
Helena was clearly the only one who found this a completely reasonable thing to say. This was probably because she and Claudia had, over the past several months, developed their own strange language for talking about artifacts, as if they really did have feelings and moods and practically even, Myka thought, hobbies. Like the appropriate collection of artifacts would kick back together and play canasta. (Myka thought canasta was the most adult game in the world. The game must have gone through some vogue in Colorado when she was a girl, because her parents spent a whole summer and fall going to canasta parties, and holding canasta parties, and she and Tracy had spent a lot of time with their babysitter. Of course artifacts would have canasta parties. But they wouldn’t let the newer artifacts join them—Myka’s parents wouldn’t even teach her how to play. She went into a tiny pout just thinking about it now.)
Helena saw the pout. (Helena saw almost everything. So unnerving.) “What is it?” she asked. “Do you know something about the artifact?”
“No,” Myka said. “And I don’t know anything about canasta, either.” Myka knew it was a comment from nowhere, but she just got so distracted when Helena and Claudia were doing their extra-special geek thing…
Helena had taken to filing these non sequiturs away for later inquiry; Myka knew this because she’d often find herself back in the middle of a conversation she thought they’d concluded hours or even days before, as Helena would start quizzing her, with no preamble at all, about whatever it was she’d said. Note to self, she thought now, google “how to play canasta.”
“Reports from the area,” Claudia said absently, “are… huh. Interesting. Actually, really interesting.”
“Something’s happening?” Pete asked.
“Obviously something’s happening,” Claudia said. “What’s interesting is the way people are talking about it. There seems to be… well, there’s no non-weird way to say this, so I’ll just say it: there seems to be an outbreak of belief.”
Artie seemed to raise his antennae at that. “Belief? What kind of belief?”
“Well, there’s this fair or expo or something like that going on, and right at the beginning the emcee was joking around and said that there was some kind of fight between grannies over apple pies. And people broke all speed records trying to get to where the pies were and see the fight.”
“Yeah?” Pete said. “So why were they fighting? Over whose pie was best? And who won? I like the kind with the two crusts, but some people really dig the crumble topping. I think they’re nuts, but in the end, when you put the ice cream on, it’s all good.”
Claudia snorted, and Myka couldn’t tell if she was disagreeing with him or just making fun. “No, see, there wasn’t actually a fight. And the only reason it made the news is that some people got hurt in the stampede. And finally, you don’t put ice cream on apple pie. You put cheddar cheese on apple pie.”
Pete intoned, “You are a demon sent from hell to corrupt the youth of today with your pagan pie-eating ways. Or something like that. Cheese is just wrong. I could maybe allow whipped cream, but that’s it.”
“That’s some serious discrimination,” Claudia said. “You’ll allow ice cream and whipped cream, but not cheese? It’s all dairy underneath, man. Not to mention, cheese is better for the lactose intolerant. Why do you want to do them, and the cheesemakers, so wrong?”
“Why do I let you people talk?” Artie asked. Myka couldn’t tell if it was meant to be rhetorical.
“Because you need to hear what I have to say,” Claudia told him. “Pete just talks. It’s like the Muzak we live our lives to.”
“I don’t know what anyone is talking about,” Helena said.
Myka reached over and chucked Helena’s chin, just a brief little nudge. “And here you thought you’d been getting so up to date, too. Take notes; I’ll explain it all later.”
“Canasta,” Helena muttered darkly. “Muzak. I am so exhausted of taking notes.”
“Enough,” Artie said, but he didn’t appear particularly perturbed. “Be happy, Helena. You, Myka, and Pete get to go to the fair in wherever it is.”
“Kenosha, Wisconsin,” Claudia said.
“Aha!” Pete crowed. “No wonder you’re all about cheese!”
“I haven’t been to a fair in quite some time,” Helena remarked.
“I bet they’re actually not that much different now,” Myka said. “Is it the kind where they have rides?”
“I’m looking,” Claudia said. She clicked and swiped around for a while, then said, “Not really fancy rides. Just your typical carnival. Oh, hey, but as, like, the culminating event, there’s a demo derby. Who doesn’t love a demo derby?”
“That is something like a dream come true,” Pete agreed. “Artie, if we bag the artifact in time, can we stay for the derby?”
“Let me get this straight,” Artie said. “You want to stay in Kenosha, Wisconsin longer than is absolutely necessary just so you can watch a demolition derby?”
“What will be demolished?” Helena asked.
“Cars,” Myka told her.
“And they will be demolished how, exactly?”
Pete enthused, “By banging into each other! Until they can’t go anymore!”
Helena cocked her head at him. “Really. Cars colliding with each other is the culminating event? I suppose it does help to clarify why the idea of a fight over pie was so enticing to the crowd, at least.”
“I wonder,” Myka said, “why that was so enticing. I mean, even if you accept that they believed it was happening, why would they be so desperate to see it?”
“Not much goes on in Kenosha?” Claudia offered. “I can totally see that happening in Univille. If there were ever a fair here, which there isn’t, because an event including a bake-off would be way too exciting for this place. And a granny fight over the bake-off? OMG. People would lose their minds.”
“Univille should totally have a demo derby,” Pete said, but tentatively, as if he were putting a lot of thought into it. “How can we make that happen? Maybe we could set it up and say the IRS was sponsoring it, and then people would like us more.”
“People like me just fine,” Claudia said. “And Myka and H.G. don’t care.”
“Hey!” Myka said, “I care!” She turned to Helena. “And you do too, don’t you?”
“Not really,” Helena said mildly. “I would rather the townspeople not curse my name or throw things at me, of course, but other than that, their feelings about me…” She trailed off as it seemed to strike her that Myka was offended. Which she was—how could Helena not care what people in Univille thought of her? And then Myka answered her own (internal) question: because she’s H.G. Wells, fool. (This was in Claudia’s voice.) She cares what history thinks of her. But then Helena said, making Myka’s heart swell because she knew it was for her benefit, “I could make more of an effort, certainly, to overcome the natives’ quite natural response to my foreign-ness. Perhaps I could be one of the drivers who bangs a car into other cars?”
Pete quickly said, “If H.G. gets to drive in it, then so do I.”
Claudia piggybacked, “If Pete and H.G. drive, then so do I also. Too. In addition.”
“Guys?” Myka said to all of them. “I think we have to go to Wisconsin before this even starts becoming an issue.”
Artie added, “And I don’t think—I know—that this will not in fact start becoming an issue at any point in time! Pete, if you’re so desperate for car crashes, then fine, stay. But it’s on your dime—not the Warehouse’s dime, not the IRS’s dime. And the IRS’s dime will also not be used to sponsor any kind of Univille community activity, because yes, strangely, I do think that would draw unwarranted attention to the Warehouse. Have you lost your minds?”
A pause, and then Pete said “yeah, probably” as Claudia said “most likely.” Helena wisely didn’t contribute, and Myka kept quiet too—she was pretty sure she hadn’t lost her mind, but she thought that saying “no” might come off as disloyal. And she already had Pete casting wounded glances at her whenever she took Helena’s side in any kind of dispute. Not that there had actually been all that many disputes lately; everyone seemed pretty happy just to be alive and walking around. (Particularly Steve. Myka had thought he would be more freaked out by the whole situation, but he was strangely accepting. So accepting, in fact, that he was doing normal things like taking vacation time. Artie had seemed thoroughly disinclined to deny him anything. That was a little out of character, but understandable.)
“Let’s go pack,” Myka suggested. She tried to tell herself that the Wisconsin situation could actually be less than bad , and maybe even fun; Helena was sure to have some of her (pretty funny) interactions with strange (to her) customs of today—although at the Kenosha County Fair, they were more likely to be customs of yesterday. But even Kenosha’s yesterday was probably still later than Helena’s previous today, which… now Myka was confusing herself, mostly because she didn’t care enough to get unconfused. She sighed.
Helena reached over to Myka and echoed her earlier chin-chuck. “There, there,” she said. “We’ll locate the artifact in no time. Pete will then be free to watch cars destroy one another, and you and I will be free to… well, to do whatever else one does at a fair these days.”
“Aw, H.G., why would you want to skip a demo derby?” Pete whined.
“I have had enough of destruction,” she said, but not as seriously as she might have. Myka smiled; she was clearly trying to get Pete’s goat. “However, if you do at some point manage to convince Artie that Univille should play host to such an event, then by all means, sign me up. You certainly never tire of suggesting that my driving has less to do with transportation than with demolition.”
“How true that is,” Claudia agreed. “What your driving has to do with, we should all be wearing helmets, harnesses, and fireproof suits.”
“Look at what I have learned: that is a reference to car racing, and is it my fault that I find the idea of speed so fascinating?”
Claudia chuckled. “Yeah, okay, but if you could make a rocket, why couldn’t you make yourself a Ferrari Testarossa?”
“I don’t know what that is. It sounds like a food item of some sort.”
“A fast car, H.G. It’s a really fast car.”
“Well, I was rather occupied with the rocket, the time machine, and various other oddities. But now that you mention it, it is a bit odd that I was never much interested in the speed of the rocket.”
“But it obviously had to reach escape velocity,” Claudia said, getting her serious expression on, “so you had to be interested in it at least going that fast.”
“Yes, but I wasn’t preoccupied with the idea that someone could be in the rocket, if you see my point. It was simply meant to be a projectile.”
“So you don’t even like guns,” Pete said, “but you basically were making a big bullet?”
Helena paled. “And now that you mention that, the whole enterprise sounds ever so much worse. I should have anticipated that there would be problems. Had I thought of it that way, I would have most likely realized that what goes up must come down. In a predictable path. As a bullet does.”
“Nice, Pete,” Myka said. “Thanks.”
He shrugged. “Don’t blame me; I didn’t make the thing.” And there it was again, the tension bubble that liked to materialize as a special surprise at times when Myka least expected it to—and usually, when she least wanted it to, when things seemed to be going as well as they had any right to, there it would be, usually because of Pete’s goading, but even sometimes between her and Helena: a poorly chosen word here, an apparently damning inflection there, and it was off to the self-flagellation races for someone.
She supposed that it was like that for most people with sufficient history… but most people’s history wasn’t so huge, so literally world-shattering. (She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about the fact that the word literally was appropriate so much more often, in the context of the Warehouse, than it was in real life. It used to tick her off when people would use it when it wasn’t what they really meant; now she just envied them their naiveté.)
Relations were back to détente by the time they left for Kenosha—they had to hurry, because the fair was scheduled to last only three more days. That left not much time for jabs and jibes; they spent about twenty minutes throwing their stuff into roller bags and then dashed for the airport. Pete wouldn’t let Helena drive, which she said made no sense at all, given the time constraints. Myka would have been perfectly happy for Helena never to get behind the wheel of a car again; it was clear that she was going to get them all killed someday, and it would have absolutely nothing to do with rage and malice and artifacts and everything to do with her bizarre fondness for speed. Outside of rockets. If that hadn’t turned into a problem, Myka would still have been doubled over with hilarity at the idea of H.G. Wells making the world’s biggest and fastest bullet.
They flew into Chicago because it was cheaper than Milwaukee. That meant more driving, and at the car rental counter, Pete made a show of handing the keys to Myka. “Because I’m tired,” he said with an ostentatious yawn.
“What if I’m tired too?” she demanded.
“I’m wide awake!” Helena chirped.
Myka turned to her. “Seriously, you have got to let this go,” she said. “You aren’t driving. That’s final. At least until you show us that you have honestly turned over a new leaf about it.”
“How can I do that,” Helena asked, in her most reasonable tone of voice, “if you never let me drive? I can’t prove my driving has changed until you actually experience it.”
“Which I do not want to do today,” Pete said firmly. “Maybe back home. We’ll have a little test run, and if you pass, I’ll consider letting you take the wheel maybe one morning a week on the way to the Warehouse. Anything more than that, it’s going to take years, lady, so get used to sitting back and enjoying the ride.”
“If you force me to sit in the back, I refuse to enjoy the ride,” Helena told him. Myka stroked her arm, and Helena melted. She usually did, when it came to things that didn’t really matter. “All right,” she said. “But only because you ask so nicely.”
“She didn’t even ask you anything,” Pete said.
“Oh, but she did,” Helena said with a smile.
“You guys should be spies or something. Your little code. La-la means I love you.” He rolled his eyes.
“Pete,” Myka said. He kept rolling his eyes, so she snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Pete!”
“What? I hate it when you snap!”
“Pete,” she said, even though she knew it was pointless, “we are spies or something.”
“Oh. Yeah, I guess we are. Not real CIA spooks, though. I couldn’t get into the CIA. I tried, but they like to grow their own, if you know what I mean. The Marine thing wasn’t really what they were looking for.”
“I never really wanted to be CIA,” Myka said. “You don’t get to carry your gun as much. And too much undercover. I hate being undercover.”
“I know. Which makes it so much funnier when we have to do it. Now, H.G., on the other hand, I bet undercover is right up her alley.”
Helena said, “Well, I—”
Pete interrupted, “Except for the part where you would suck at it, because first of all, your American accent is crap.”
“Who says I would have to be undercover as an American? Or even in America? It may surprise you to learn that very few people in the world, as a percentage of the whole, speak English with an American accent.”
“Well, if all your accents are as bad as your American one, you’re still gonna be pretty limited. Because I bet there’s even less who have a hoity-toity British accent.”
“Fewer,” Myka said immediately.
“Fewer what?” Pete asked.
“Fewer. Not less. You can count the people who have a hoity-toity British accent.”
“No I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. There’s a specific number of them.”
“Yeah, but who’d have the time? I sure don’t.”
Now Helena stroked Myka’s arm. Myka felt the warmth through her sleeve. She said, “Okay. You’re right. Uncountable. And since nobody’s going undercover on this particular job, I don’t think it really matters who likes it and who doesn’t. You’re going to get a demo derby, and Helena’s going to get to try funnel cakes, and I’m going to try to keep from standing next to the cotton candy, because I once had to run a cotton candy machine and I inhaled some of the fibers and I think they’re sort of like asbestos. So don’t be surprised when I die of lung cancer in a few years. And get in the car.”
“Don’t be surprised when you get in the car?”
What? “When I... what? Why would you be surprised when I get in the car? Obviously I’m getting in the car. I’m telling you to. Do that, I mean. Get in the car.” Myka was starting to worry a little about her tendency to confuse herself (not to mention everyone else), but she decided it would be best to blame it on Pete. And possibly endorphins, or oxytocin, or whatever the being-in-love chemical was, because she really was finding it hard to look at Helena these days without feeling her face collapse into a goofy curve.
“Now I’m wondering if you’re actually okay to drive,” Pete said. “Because isn’t it my job to be the one who doesn’t make any sense? According to you, that is. I think I make a lot of sense.”
Her Farnsworth then made its presence known, and Myka was thankful. Anything to get off the topic of whether Pete, or she, or even Helena, made sense. Not that Helena ever really didn’t make sense: only when she was talking about something historical that none of the rest of them had ever bothered to pay attention to in history class. Or when she and Claudia went off on one of their technology rants. Myka did find it funny that despite their almost complete lack of familiarity with each other’s tools, the tech geeks managed to maintain a cross-century fraternity. Or sorority, in this case.
Claudia was the one calling. “Guys,” she said, “hurry yourselves over to ye olde county fair. The thing’s happening again.”