Gordon Malthus returned from his morning constitutional looking extremely flustered. Sweat dripped along his pudgy, defiant face, making small rivulets at the tips of his drooping mustache. Again and again his twitching, mousy hands returned to his misaligned golden spectacles, rearranging them incessantly on his bulbous radish of a nose.
Henry watched him from his seat on Malthus' porch, a stopwatch obediently in hand. The time ran across it in rapid numerals, which came to a sudden halt as he stopped the count at his employer's approach.
He was almost sorry to see the man responsible for his paychecks; he'd been enjoying the tranquility of the hour. The day was warm with a good breeze, and from the hill on which the house stood, one had quite a pleasant view of the surrounding countryside. The morning fog was thick along the borders of the many ravines, making them seem dreamy and ethereal rather than menacing, and the other hillocks were dotted with the small white forms of sheep. The dew had disappeared around half and hour ago, and now the grass stood tall and crisp, swaying in enthralling patterns under the direction of the wind.
But as Gordon Malthus approached, so too did the death of the morning's peace. The smell of fresh air and faraway blooms was masked by the rank odor of slowly drying sweat, and Malthus' voice easily drowned out the tunes of the meadowlarks.
"I have two hours, twenty-three minutes," reported Henry, taking care to mask his chagrin.
Malthus squinted at his own watch, rubbing away the droplets of perspiration which had fallen on the face. He scowled. "I'm a minute off," he grumbled. "Still, the gist is what matters. Seven miles," he added. Though no further context was given, the comment was enough to stir Henry out of his languishing woes.
Malthus nodded, looking grimly pleased with himself. "Told you, didn't I? Seven miles by Friday. And it's Friday today, and there!" he thrust the counter towards Henry's incredulous eyes. "Seven point three!" he crowed.
Henry pushed the instrument away, and handed a towel for Gordon to wipe himself off with. "I'll tell the doctor. No doubt he'll be very interested."
"Interested, eh? I should think so, nosy bastard." But the words held no real fire. Malthus was deep in thought.
"I've got the hot water running," said Henry. "And your midday clothes are beside the tub."
"On the counter, as usual."
And with a curt nod, Malthus ducked into the doorway. Henry took one last wistful look at the fading morning fog, and began wondering how the man would like his eggs.
Henry was in a peculiar position in Malthus' household. He'd been brought on last summer, when a change in family fortunes meant that Malthus was forced to lay off most of his serving staff. Henry was to serve as cook, butler, research assistant, and occasional confidante, with only the old housekeeper and the gardener remaining of the original staff. Of this, at least, the boy was glad -- he was useless at dusting, and the sight of shears unsettled him.
Gordon Malthus called him an aide -- and easy way of worming out of regular pay and instead opting towards an odd, difficult-to-define method of merit-based payment, in which Henry's performance dictated how much money he made a week.
More often, it depended on Malthus' Sunday mood. Still, work was hard to find these days, and by now Henry knew enough about his employer to make at least a decent profit. For example: today the man had come up the hill limping, which meant his old wound was reacting badly to the fog. Which in turn meant that he'd be feeling nostalgic for his youth, meaning anything other than scrambled eggs would lead to a fit of anger and a reduction of pay.
He cracked the eggs casually, with one hand, and he'd just whipped up a decent scramble with cheese when Malthus waddled into the dining room in his robe, a newspaper and his notebook clutched under one arm. He took a sniff at the air and a glance at the eggs, before settling down at the table with a grunt, which Henry knew meant that the breakfast was satisfactory.
He set the eggs in front of Malthus, along with some toast and a pot of blackberry preserves. He took an apple for himself, and sat himself in the opposite chair, eating as quietly as possible. Malthus read his newspaper.
"No bacon?" he commented, setting it down.
"You know why, sir. The doctor wants you to be able to take the distance, and at your age it's best to be careful."
"At my age. I tell you, Villet"-- Henry's last name, of which he wasn't fond -- "When I was a boy, I ran ten miles every weekend, against Barnaby Hock from the farmlands. You didn't see me skimping on protein then. Nothing wrong with bacon, discounting doddering old doctors who think they know more than they do."
"Dr. Tendus has a degree in medicine," reminded Henry. "And sir, with all due respect, you're a seismologist."
"A damn good seismologist."
Malthus took a savage bite of eggs, then looked at his arm with a scowl. "Healthy as horses," he muttered. "Not him, though. You could cut his veins with a stiff wind."
"Is there any word from Africa, sir?" Henry gestured at the paper, feeling this was a good time to change the subject.
"Eh? Bah. More rubbish about the stocks." Malthus tossed the newspaper aside. "And cricket. There's three damn pages about some game." He snatched at a page, seemingly at random, but then thrust it into Henry's face. "One paragraph! Look at it! The entire continent's coming apart, and they give it a paragraph! It's all a sham, I tell you. The papers, the stocks . . . . you tell me, Villet, what the damn do stocks matter, when there's no ground to sell 'em on? Are they going to take the market to the skies? Trade 'em in planes?"
"Eh? Yes. Yes it is." And he went back to the eggs, the red fading from his face. "Seven point three," he said again, with his mouth full. "Mark my words, Villet, it'll be twenty by next Friday."
Malthus raised an eyebrow. "I told you last week, didn't I? I told you, seven. And today it was seven. And I'm telling you now, Villet, that next week, it'll be twenty."
Henry felt dizzy. "But that's over twice -- no, it's almost three times as -- but how? The doctor said" --
"How many times do I tell you?" Malthus slammed his fist on the table, making Henry jump. "Tendus is a doctor. Some fancy government plaque isn't going to make him a seismologist, any more than a rasher of bacon is going to make me a corpse." He'd moved onto the toast, now, and spread the preserves with enough vehemence to sent flecks of jam across the tablecloth.
"Still sir, he's not the only one making diagnostics. They've got teams"--
"Of idiots. You read their schedule yourself, boy. They had today at five. They're using the wrong numbers, trying to play the crowd." His voice was sardonic. " Trying to control panic. Playing ostrich, that's what he's doing. Digging his head in the sand, hoping it'll go away."
Outside, unannounced, a great rumble descended from the hills. It grew in volume slowly, and Henry knew enough to clutch the plates with one hand, the table with the other, so that when the quake hit, nothing on the table was spilled.
In the closed cabinets, the plates and china rattled against their braces. Chairs and cabinets shuddered and fell throughout the house, while books flew off the shelves and pens rolled across Malthus' study floor. In fact the study was just across from the kitchen, on the other side of the sitting room, and from its open door there spilled a deluge of collected newspapers, archived by Malthus and Henry over the course of the year, and nearly a dozen of them reached the kitchen in a flurry of newsprint and loud headlines.
He picked one up at random when the noise and tremors had faded, a look of utter dismay on his face. He looked from the one in his hand to the flood reaching to the study, and moaned. "The lock must have fallen," he said. "And it took us all year..." Almost comically, as if fate had set up a little joke, the issue in his hands was the first one that he and Malthus had collected, dated almost ten years before Henry had joined the seismologist's endeavors.
ALASKAN EARTHQUAKES CAUSED BY NUCLEAR EXPERIMENT, SAYS NEW REPORT it read. And of course, Henry remembered the occasion vividly. More details had come out over the next year -- the classified documents detailing the disastrous shift in the Earth's magnetic field, and how the experiment in Alaska had been designed to counteract it like the lobotomies of old: by dropping a 50 megaton nuclear bomb into a hole to the outer core of the Earth.
They'd called it a surgical redirection -- a way to counteract a natural sixth extinction. And now the world was tearing itself apart.
Malthus grimaced from across the table, as if he too was re-experiencing the origin of his current line of study. "Twenty miles by Friday," he repeated, and picked up his toast from the floor.