The Raven Song of Dr. Wrong
by P. F. White
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“It’s not enough,” said Doctor Wrong with a scowl. “Not even close.”
“If we had talked numbers—” I began but he held up a hand like a withered claw and scowled even deeper. It was a gesture I was very familiar with as I used it often myself.
“I thought we had an understanding, Mr. Face... I can see now that I was wrong.”
I smiled. Hardball was it? “How about triple this amount,” I asked, “in one month’s time?”
He shook his head sadly and stood up somehow without moving.
“Quadruple,” I said.
“I will need something to the extent of ten times this amount if I am to give you anything more,” said Doctor Wrong. The way he put it seemed like a challenge. I liked challenges. I extended my hand.
“In one month’s time?”
The birds outside cackled and thunder boomed. Doctor Wrong seemed to bring the rain with him like the villain from a Victorian novel or a cartoon mad scientist. He took my hand. It was like shaking hands with a corpse, albeit a corpse with a nice strong grip.
“One month, Mr. Face,” he said sternly.
I smiled; my mind was already turning.
* * *
We used adolescents mostly, recruited using flyers around the city, from schools, and the kids of people at the company. They didn’t mind bad pay and no recognition, they were just happy to be considered professionals. We were happy to take advantage of them. The way of the world it was, with everyone happy and exploited.
Within a week we had doubled our work force; within two we had doubled that. I worried it wouldn’t be enough but then the Kid came up with the idea of a mail order scheme in the back of comic books. It was genius really, and yielded results in no time at all. The world, it seemed, was absolutely filed with artists wanting to be acknowledged. We didn’t give them acknowledgment exactly, but we did take them for everything they were worth... which is close enough to the same thing in the end.
* * *
“Very Good,” said Doctor Wrong. The birds outside were silent for once and seemed to agree with his assessment. I took this as a good sign.
“Tea?” I said pouring myself a cup. He held up his right hand and in it was a bottle of bourbon. His left held the dry umbrella with the bird skull as always.
“I think something stronger is due today,” he said.
It was my exact brand. I smiled to avoid shuddering and he mirrored it in his fashion. We drank in blessed silence like monks. He fidgeted all the while with his bird-skull umbrella which bothered me a little.
“I have given you the plans for a solar power plant far superior to anything your science can procure,” he said. “And you will find the art has been taken in payment.”
I thought about opening my mouth but instead only smiled. What the hell was I going to do with a power plant?
“Solve this world’s energy crisis forever,” growled Doctor Wrong, “You will find it more than sufficient in terms of yield and quite viable for production. It will also increase production in all other aspects of your economy. It is a blessing of incalculable worth and more than likely impossible to have ever achieved without my help.”
I nodded. “Will you—”
“I want three times the amount of art currently being produced,” said Dr. Wrong; he enunciated clearly despite his numerous teeth and formed his next words with infinite care: “In one month.”
By the time I reached for his hand he was already gone. The Birds laughed at my foolishnesses and I cursed at them through the window.
* * *
“What’s all this then?” asked Old Boy as he looked at the blueprints. I didn’t want to look at them any longer; they were too blurry without my spectacles and made my forehead wrinkle from the effort of squinting.
“What are we going to do with a power plant?” asked McMurty.
“Check it out and sell it. If it’s even close to the cure then we will be making a better deal than anyone but us has seen in...” — I couldn’t help but smile — “well, forever.”
“And the art?” asked The Kid.
“If we can’t find what we need from the comics then go international. I hear the Japanese and the French both have large comics markets, and the third-world economy is always brimming with people needing work.”
“What’s all this about international?” asked Old Boy from his position at the blueprints.
“Shut up,” I said. He clenched his fists and shook like he wanted to hit me.
It made me smile.
* * *
“Double the amount you asked for,” I said. “Take it with my blessing.”
Doctor Wrong frowned.
“And the power plant?”
“Had to pass that one along, Doc,” I said. “But we are getting a percentage when it’s built. They said we are only going to need three of the damn things for the whole planet.”
“Do not call me ‘Doc’,” said Doctor Wrong, “A good business relationship demands a good formality to prosper.”
It was one of my own principles again, written down not a year ago and quoted as often as possible. I did not like being on its receiving end. “My apologies,” I said in a serious tone.
“Can you produce twice this amount of art next month?” he said.
“But Doctor this IS twi—”
He stood up. I actually saw it this time; it was strangely disconcerting... like seeing a magician having trouble with a trick.
“Yes, I can produce that much,” I said through smiling teeth.
He fiddled obviously with his bird-skull umbrella before responding. “Very good. Then you will find an even greater reward next month. For now, content yourself with this beverage.”
There was a bound collection of papers upon the table and a bottle of green liquid.
“How—” I began and then stopped myself. He would explain; I knew.
“It revitalizes the body,” he said. “Staves off death and heals.”
It would make the cold cure worthless. Doc Wrong was a bastard, but I would have done the same thing in his shoes. He was a right magnificent bastard.
“My thanks,” I said.
The birds cackled outside, having the time of their lives as the rain cascaded around them.
* * *
In one month the power plant was built and the Vitalizer was on the market. Both were considered bigger inventions than the wheel. We as a civilization now had nearly unlimited power and nearly unlimited life.
My company and I had almost unlimited money and nearly no time to spend it.
“I’m going to run for office,” I said to McMurty, Old Boy, and the Kid while we were enjoying an after-hours drink in the company of kings and movie stars.
“What’s all this then?” said Old Boy. He looked like he was going to have another heart attack. The others just shook my hand and lied about what a swell guy I am.
Ms. Gunn brought the champagne and I noticed for once what a pretty woman she was. I mean I always knew she was a peach but... Oh, sod it. Strange thing was, I didn’t even need my glasses.
* * *
Doctor Wrong was late. It was not like him. It was storming and a crowd of bored-looking birds had gathered about my window, but no Doctor.
“Ms. Gunn?” I asked. She poked her attractive blonde head in the door and smiled at me.
“Any word?” I asked. She shook her head sadly.
“Tell her to leave us,” said Doctor Wrong from beside the window. I jumped nearly out of my skin. Ms. Gunn disappeared as if she had seen a ghost.
“Doctor Wrong, so good to see you again!”
“I apologize for my tardiness,” said the Doctor. He was looking haggard and sleep-deprived, and his suit of red feathers was not as clean or smooth as it usually was.
“You look like you could use a drink,” I said.
He nodded and stared out the window at the birds. They cawed absently at him and I watched their heads following every slight twitch of his bird-skull umbrella. He said nothing and only watched them.
Surprisingly, I was actually able to pour Doctor Wrong a drink and hand it to him. The drink was a mixture of Bourbon and Vitalizer that had caught on in bars around the world largely due to my own group’s preference for it.
The Doctor held it without drinking it. “Do you know about Ravens, Mr. Face?” asked Doctor Wrong.
I shook my head, “I’m a businessman, Doctor, not an ornithologist.”
“Don’t get snippy.”
I shut my mouth. One does not offend the golden goose.
The storm continued at a low roar. The weathermen said that using a side effect of the solar generators they might be able to control the coming and going of rain soon. It was an exciting time to be alive.
Doctor Wrong cleared his throat. “The ancient Americans said that a Raven created the world out of boredom. That he dropped a pebble from his beak and in time it became the world. There is another culture, islanders I think, that say the Raven did not create the world but it was a Raven that brought water and fire into it.”
I looked out at the birds but they seemed not to notice me. The Doctor twitched his hand across the umbrella and more birds joined those outside. He twitched again and the number increased ever the more.
“So you are saying—” my voice was soft and uncertain, even to my own ears.
“I’m saying that they did not know what they were talking about,” he snapped. He was then facing me. I did not see him move and the effect was still unsettling.
“Do you have the art I asked for?”
I nodded. “Every last piece.”
“Then you will find technologies for interstellar space travel, terraforming and colonization.”
I laughed and he scowled.
“And why would I want such things?” I asked.
“Because your people are outgrowing this world at a tremendous pace.”
He noticed the drink in his hand, seemingly for the first time before adding, “Almost entirely because of me.”
I did not know what to say. He was probably right, but I had never considered it.
“I will be needing more art,” he said.
“If you want the same amount as today—”
He shook his head, sadly.
“It will be harder to increase the amount at this point, nearly impossible even.”
“And to triple it?” he whispered.
“Absurd!” I nearly shouted.
“Then I will leave you to it, Mr. Face. I DO have other meetings.”
He was gone of course, by the time the words hit my ears. I stared into the rain for a while and thought about what he had said. The ravens lost interest without him and I wondered about that for the first time in months. It was Ms. Gunn who found me watching them and I kissed her, as I had wanted to do for some time.
The rain hid the ravens’ features as they flew away. They looked confused, lost even, without Doctor Wrong to guide them.
* * *
It nearly bankrupted us to establish the kind of art production Doctor Wrong was asking for. I held off my plans for political office, not because of desire but simple time. I needed more of it and there was no excuse for my absence.
By the time one month had come around I was nearly broken from exhaustion.
The plans for interstellar travel and colonization were deemed brilliant and a government institution founded to begin working on them at once. The world, the president told me, was simply growing too quickly and if we did not expand soon then global catastrophe would be the inevitable result.
Global catastrophe, I knew, would severely curtail the production of art. It was a thought that kept me up late into the night.
* * *
“I don’t think we can get you any more art,” I said to Doctor Wrong. I didn’t wait for him to appear this time; I simply spoke to the ravens outside at the time his appointment was scheduled. I heard his voice behind me.
“I don’t think you can either.”
“Then what are we to do?”
“I have given you a technology,” he said.
I sighed. More work, more lives saved and more sleepless nights.
“It is a powerful technology,” he said. I could not face him but in my mind’s eye an image came unbidden. It was a device roughly the size of an umbrella handle.
“This technology,” he continued, “allows you to transport yourself and objects to other places at will.”
I turned to face him. He did not meet my gaze. I looked instead at the wrinkles upon his forehead, his missing eye and the other covered in a powerful monocle. His nose had once even been straight and proud. Perhaps time and rough living had bent it into its horrible shape. There was no doubt that he had once been handsome and young... and ruthless... and very very familiar.
“Other places?” I asked, not wanting to hear the answer.
“Other realities.” He hesitated. “It is expensive and time-consuming... It takes a lot out of you, ages you, and must be handled with extreme caution... And there can be side effects. Sometimes, extreme...” He fit the words carefully through a mouth filled with teeth... far too many teeth to be human, at least anymore.
Words spilled from my lips without my choice: “Other realities filled with art?”
He nodded, saying quietly, “Yes.”
“And in return?”
“Same as before... It is the same deal everywhere in fact: I will give you technology.”
He looked me in the eye then and I saw age, a lifetime perhaps of such deals. I was not the first and I was not the only one by far. He touched his cane deliberately and the rain stopped. His thumb caressed it and the ravens took flight. He stamped it and the lights flickered. I suddenly knew a lot about devils and ravens and the ways of the world.
I suddenly knew a lot about myself and it made me smile. My fame was only beginning.
“A word of advice,” spoke Doctor Wrong.
“Prey upon their myths and their superstitions. Use appearances and words to appear strange to them and you will be taken in with respect.”
I nodded. “It is good advice, Doctor Wrong,” I said. It would even become a principle of mine, in time.
He smiled. Then, and without meaning to, together we began to laugh. Our sounds were the same and merged together perfectly. They filled the tiny office as they would fill the next tiny world.
I would call myself Doctor Face.
Copyright © 2013 by P. F. White