Neal Barrett Jr

The Prophecy Machine


Master Finn filled his lungs with the clean salt air, with the heady ocean breeze. The Madeline Rose raced atop a gentle swell, then plunged once more into the briny deep.

“Great Socks and Shoes,” Finn said aloud, dizzy with the sweet intoxication of the sea, “Why, a man could bottle this wondrous stuff and sell it in every foul alley, every dank and smoky town. There's a fortune to be had in pure, uncontaminated air!”

“What's that now, lad? Were you speakin' to me, Master Finn?”

Finn looked up to find Captain Magreet in his path, boots spread wide, poised upon the deck with perfect ease. The ship might roll, the ship might sway, might turn upon its back for a while. Nothing, Finn was sure, would trouble good Captain Magreet.

“Just muttering, sir,” Finn said, “taking in the air. And a lovely fine day it is, too.”

“Might be, might not,” the captain said. “Might be heading for a squall.”

Finn raised a brow at that. “A-squall, sir? We're headed for a squall?”

“Of course not, a day like this? Not a chance of that at all.”

“That's good to hear.”

“Never been to sea before. I'll bet I'm safe in sayin' that.”

“No, sir. My very first time.”

“Aye, then you've never heard the wind shrieking in the shrouds, never seen a fifty-foot wave comin' at you in the night.”

“My heavens, no.”

“Neither have I. Hope to hell I never do.”

The captain, lost in some frightful image of his own, gripped the rail and stared out to sea.

Finn, clad in ordinary clothing-putty-colored trousers, gray flaxen shirt, broad belt and ankle boots-felt much like a common sparrow next to the dapper Magreet. The captain was a colorful sight indeed, dressed in the customary garb of an officer at sea-ruffled crimson shirt, harlequin knickers and a fancy plumed hat.

Finn, without meaning to criticize, felt that this radiant attire was somewhat out of sorts on a short stub of a man like Magreet, a globular fellow with stumpy legs and scarcely any neck at all. Tanned, parched, seared by the weather and the years, his skin was dark and furrowed as a nut. His nose was a great inflammation, a monstrous knob that looked as if tiny red spiders had spun their webs there. Finn guessed, with little hesitation, that the captain was wed to Madame Rum, the curse of many a man who went to sea.

“And how fares your, uh-whatever it be, Master Finn,” said Magreet, studying the deck for a moment, then facing Finn again. “I hope you don't take offense, sir. I don't mean to pry.”

“Certainly not, none taken,” Finn said. He was, in fact, greatly surprised Magreet had kept his silence this long, as they'd been asail for half a week.

“What I thought is,” the captain said, rubbing a sleeve across his nose, “I thought, with the salt air and all, the ah-object on your shoulder there, that's the thing I mean, might be prone to oxidation, to rust as it's commonly called.”


“I've been some curious, as others have as well, just what it might be. Now don't feel we're trying to intrude …”

“Of course not, sir.” Finn smiled, taking some pleasure in finding the captain ill at ease. “What you speak of is a lizard. I design and craft lizards of every sort. Lizards for work, lizards for play. Lizards for the rich and poor alike. I make them of metal, base and precious too, sometimes with finery, sometimes with gems. The one you see here is made of copper, tin, iron, and bits of brass.”

The captain closed one squinty eye, looked at Finn's shoulder, then looked away again.

“And these-lizards, what exactly do they do, Master Finn?”

“Oh, a great number of things,” Finn said. “When we have some time I'd be pleased to explain. It might be I can make one for you.”

“Yes, well …”

“This one, now, this one is somewhat unique. This one is strictly ornamental. It really does nothing at all.”

“Ornamental, you say.” Judging by the captain's expression, he had little use for ornamental things of any sort. “Well then, I wish you a good day, sir. Enjoy your voyage aboard the Madeline Rose.

“I surely will,” Finn said.

The captain turned, then stopped, as if a thought had flicked like a moth about his head.

“Your servant,” he said, “I hope she's some better today.”

“Sadly no, sir. I fear she finds little comfort in the sea.”

“I'm sorry this is so. Please tell her again, I view that ah-incident with regret. Assure her she is perfectly safe aboard my ship. No harm of any sort will come to her here.”

“I've had no success in quieting her fears thus far, Captain. I am most uncertain that I will.”

“Nonsense,” said the captain, waving Finn's words away. “I'm sure she'll come around. And when she gets on her feet, you are welcome to bring her to table. You will find us more casual than dry-leggers, lad. Close quarters, you know.”

“I've no complaints, sir.”

“Quite-pleasant in appearance, as I recall,” Magreet added. “Most attractive for her kind.”

The captain seemed to pause, a vessel poised to brave the sea. Finn, however, showed no sign of answering at all.

“So. Indeed, sir …” the captain said finally. “A pleasure to see you, Master Finn.”

He turned, then and walked aft, ducked in a passageway and disappeared below.

Finn felt the heat rise to his face. He had not missed the spark, the sooty little thought, the foul, damp anticipation that danced for an instant in the captain's tiny eyes.

He took a deep breath and shook the seeds of anger away. Anger, even displeasure, were not emotions he dared display. Not here, or anywhere, not in a world where bigotry still held sway. One might wink, as the captain implied, at what went on between a man and a maid of lesser kind. Still, he did not speak about it to a stranger, or scarcely even to a friend …

“Ornament, am I? Doesn't do anything at all?” said a voice like a croak, like a rattle, like a saw cutting tin. “A fine thing that is, Finn.”

“Shut up,” Finn said. “There are ears everywhere. You can't talk, Julia. Try and remember that.”

“Oh, I'll remember, all right. Next time you need Julia Jessica Slagg to save your neck from some terrible assault, to drag your bony flanks out of the fire, to-”

With nary a glance, Finn tapped a copper scale at the tip of a brassy tail. Julia gave a hiss and a sckruk! and went silent at once.

“There are times,” Finn sighed to himself, “when a man takes pride in his work, when he knows he is master of his craft. Then there are times when he wonders why he didn't choose an ordinary trade, like magic or the law, some dreary task that takes scarcely any skill at all …”


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