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The Stars are Wonder
A short story from Cheeseburger Brown
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The Stars are Wonder, a short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

7.
Womanless Calculations


The mathematicians have died. They looked dead long before they expired, bones and sinews under a thin glaze of yellowing skin. During the funeral the magician broke down and cried. The crew looked nervously about, fondling their talismans and kissing their tokens. Onion War would not speak to anyone, his eyes bloodshot and his mouth loose.

They made very small splashes, I thought, for adult women.

That was last night. Today Captain Valley has ordered me to enter Onion War's cabin and pry from him the feminine secrets of navigation so that we might find a way home. I imagine I have been chosen since I have assisted the old man with his toys, but I told everyone I hold no sway as an advisor. I still fail to see how I will persuade him. Captain Valley suggested I wear no shirt.

When I go to Onion War he is lying motionless in his hammock, staring at the ceiling.

For childish reasons I am afraid. "Are you dead?" I ask, stupidly.

"I am not dead," concedes Onion War. "I am dispirited."

When I try to steer the conversation around to navigation he interprets this as an attempt to inspire him, and responds by climbing out of bed and embracing me. "You're right -- I cannot give up!" he tells me, as if this is something I was trying to say.

Onion War hobbles over to his trunk and opens the creaking top. He digs through his belongings -- jars, badges, codpieces, orreries, folios -- and tosses them aside until he uncovers and unlatches the trunk's false bottom. From this last compartment he withdraws an item I had always assumed existed only in legend.

It is an artificial woman.

Once unfolded she is only about three hand-spans tall, her tiny bronze face impassive, her canvas breasts proud, her wooden hips wide, utterly undecorated with the guild colours that would be covering any non-illicit mechanism. Onion War unravels a ribbon of pounded gold and gently feeds one end into the back of the little artificial woman's head.

I start to say, "What are you --" but he says, "Hush now! Ah-ha, ah-ha..." so I close my mouth.

"This is something I have been working on for years," he explains in a voice of special dignity; "a project that caused much damage to my dignity and my options, indeed. But, at last, I will have my chance to prove the value of my research."

I tell him that sounds good. He asks me to read him a set of numbers from an open folio, and as I do he inserts a finger into a hole between the little artificial woman's legs and taps around in there. When I am done he pumps the artificial woman's arms up and down three times. The goldleaf ribbon is drawn inside the head and emerges from her mouth covered in arrays of tiny punctures.

Onion War takes the ribbon and moves his fingers across its surface with his eyes closed, and then nods with satisfaction. "Today the sun will set a quarter hour before the ship's sunclock," he declares. Then he opens his eyes, raises one eyebrow and lets himself smile. "That is right, my friend -- you have just witnessed a womanless calculation."

"It boggles the mind," I tell him.

He shakes my hand and then hugs me and then kisses me on the side of my neck, which is weird. I squirm away and try to change the subject. I ask him whether his revolutionary instrument can guide us safely to the Third Continent. Onion War chuckles and shakes his dreadlocked head. "You appreciate, of course, that the world is a ball."

"I have heard that philosophy."

"Heard it? Witness it! As we approach an island why do we see its peaks before its shores when the water we look across is flat? Why does it seem to rise out of the ocean?"

"Well, that is a quandary..." I admit, rubbing my chin and furrowing my brow.

"There are other proofs," says Onion War with a dismissive wave. "You may take my word for it, my friend. It is a fact. And it is also a fact that we have already covered nine tenths of the journey around the world's face."

"You mean --"

"I mean to say the next land we will see will be the far eastern shores of our own Glorious Imperial Continent. And, according to my womanless calculations, we shall be arriving there very soon indeed."

"Kiss the magic!" I cry out of sheer joy. "We're saved!"



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