LACKINGTON'S

speculative prose

The Capacity to Serve, by Simon Christiansen

capacity to servePenguins are tiny tuxedo-clad dwarven butlers, looking deceptively fit to serve, but with two useless flippers, incapable of carrying even a simple tray with a cup of tea and maybe a bowl of Turkish delight.

Their lack of opposable thumbs infuriated me.

My grandmother owned two penguins. Rare emperor breeds that waddled through the winding passageways of her home, looking for fish, which she often hid in nooks and crannies around the old mansion.

As I tried to sleep, I listened to their feet shuffling through the halls outside.

Shuffle.

Shuffle.

Shuffle.

Fish.

My grandmother lived in the country. Far from the lights of the city. Far from my friends. Far from fun. My parents insisted that I visit her during the summer. I was bored without my toys and friends. She had one thing we didn’t have in the city, though.

The penguins. Very few city folks kept penguins. They didn’t like the noise. It was hard to keep your home at an appropriate temperature, with the thermostat controlled by Central Heating, and the light by the sun.

Most people who could afford penguins moved to the country. In the country, you could do whatever you wanted.

The short one was named Martin; the tall one, Copernicus.

I helped them find the fish that my grandmother hid around the mansion. Once found, I threw the fish into the air, the penguins craned their necks back, and the fish disappeared down their throats without a sound. Like shadows swallowed by the night.

Once I learned my grandmother’s habits, the fish became easy to find. The penguins were happy to receive their food, but I grew bored. I started to hide fish myself, choosing more challenging locations, prolonging the playtime.

Once, I hid a fish inside a suit of armour in the grand hall, and the penguins vanquished the empty knight. The different pieces of the armour split apart. The helmet rolled out the front door, down the stone steps of the front stairs. The penguins ate the fish while my grandmother castigated me and made me put the armour back together.

Hiding the fish put me in a position of authority over the penguins. It wasn’t long before I stopped thinking of them as friends. I started seeing them as servants, delivering fun rather than participating as equals.

I wanted them to serve more directly. I procured a tray from the kitchen, decorating it with a nice cup of hot tea and a bowl of Turkish delight. My grandmother always had plenty, and it did look very colourful.

“Copernicus,” I called. “Wanna play a new game?”

Copernicus waddled to my side. Martin was still sleeping in his basket in the corner of the room.

I instructed Copernicus to bend his flipper. The penguin seemed nonplussed at this strange game. Martin raised his head and watched from his basket.

Copernicus bent the flipper as requested and looked at it, as if expecting a fish to materialize on the smooth surface. I took the tray from the table, carried it to the large penguin, and placed it on top of the bent flipper. It stayed.

Instructing Copernicus to keep perfectly still, I returned to the easy chair at the other end of the room.

“OK, Copernicus,” I said. “Bring me the tray.”

Copernicus waddled one step forward. The tray slid from his flipper and crashed to the floor. The teacup broke, tea soaking into the carpet. The Turkish delight bounced everywhere, a rain of multicoloured gels.

“What the fuck was the point of that?” said Copernicus.

“He is distracting us,” said Martin from his basket. “While he hides the fish.”

“Guys,” I said. “I am trying to help you become more useful.”

“We are eminently useful at eliminating the fish surplus,” proclaimed Copernicus.

“You need to be useful to humans, the providers of fish. Your natural habitats are long gone, remember? If we don’t give you fish, no one will.”

“Give me a fish, then,” said Copernicus. “Or you are not useful to us.”

I sighed and tossed him a lantern fish. Its huge eye stared at me as it soared through the air. It disappeared into the darkness within Copernicus’s beak.

Martin made that sound penguins make, and I threw him a herring.

*

Copernicus liked jazz. Sometimes, when the rain was pounding against the windows, we would sit in the drawing-room listening to Oscar Peterson and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Martin preferred progressive rock, not the best choice for a rainy afternoon.

One day, while I was close to dozing off in the drawing-room easy chair, Copernicus asked me if I had ever heard of the Great Auk.

“The great orc? Like, Uruk-hai?”

“The Great Auk. It’s a bird, like Martin and me.”

“Can’t say that I have.”

“The Great Auk, or Pinguinus impennis, was a flightless bird, which became extinct in the nineteenth century. We modern penguins are named after our resemblance to this bird, even though there is no close relation. We are the shadows cast on the cave wall by the Great Auk, the last true Pinguinus.”

The smooth piano and bass music flowing from the radio mingled with my thoughts as I tried to think of an answer.

Copernicus continued: “The Great Auk was hunted to extinction for its feathers, which were used to make pillows. By 1835, fewer than fifty birds survived, hiding on the small island of Eldey. They did not survive for long. In June 1840, Jón Brandsson and Sigurður Ísleifsson strangled the last pair of Auks in the world, acting on behalf of a private collector. Their friend, Ketill Ketilsson, smashed the last remaining Auk egg with his boot.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“So you will know that we remember.”

The jazz filled the silence between us.

*

Further experiments in servitude yielded results no better than the first. The penguins were incapable of using their flippers to carry anything at all. They were like Teflon; nothing stuck.

Years passed. I lived my life at home. Played with the penguins when visiting my grandmother. Dreamed of dominance. The penguins were subservient, sure, but what good is subservience without the capacity to serve?

When I reached my teens, I stopped visiting my grandmother as often, spending most of my time in the city.

At college, I studied biology. At first on a theoretical level, but my studies eventually drifted towards biomodification. I didn’t want to know what animals were like; I wanted to decide.

It was during my studies at the University of Copenhagen that I hatched my plan. I carried the idea in my mind for months as it developed, like a male emperor penguin incubating his egg.

I threw myself into my studies. While other students partied, I experimented on mice, parrots, platypuses and echidnas. My thesis project was a mouse with the beak of a parrot, standing on two legs, on platypus flippers. It could repeat a few simple words. It lived for two weeks.

I moved away from such extravagance, shifting my focus to improving animals in more subtle ways. I designed a corgi that could walk on its hind legs, a giraffe that could blend with its surroundings like a chameleon, avoiding predators, and a cat with eleven lives and two tails.

I became well known in the biomod community, without ever achieving any real fame. My work was, after all, not as crowd-pleasing as more ostentatious projects, such as Dr. Christianson’s renowned omni-dog.

When I was ready, I called my grandmother to reminisce about the old days. She was still in good health, as were her penguins. She was a wealthy woman and could afford to maintain her body and those of her loved ones.

We decided I should come visit the next fortnight. We could all catch up, my grandmother, the penguins and I.

In a fit of nostalgia, I wiped the dust off my old backpack and went down to the fishmonger’s. The neon mackerel above the automated doors soaked me in blue light. Inside, I filled the backpack with lantern fish, krill, crustaceans and a veritable cornucopia of cephalopods. I needed the penguins on my side for my plan to proceed.

“Wow, you own a penguin?” asked the girl behind the counter, a short brunette.

“My grandmother does,” I said. “She lives in the country, so I’m bringing some treats for the penguins when I visit.”

Her eyes widened when she recognized the plurality. “My dad owned a little blue, but he couldn’t afford the mortgage on it, in the end.”

Soon, penguins would be able to earn their existence.

I stored the fish in a backpack cooler, entered my Bentley and told it to take me to my grandmother. It still remembered the way, after all these years.

As the sun set behind the horizon, the mansion loomed before me, ancient as always.

The car stuttered and came to a halt in the driveway.

My grandmother appeared in the doorway. She was wearing a light-blue Indian salwar suit, as was the current fashion among wealthy women. She seemed to float down the steps with precise movements.

“Grandmother,” I said. “You have not changed.”

She shrugged. “Change is for the poor. I can afford to stay the same. You have grown a lot, though.”

“I have yet to reach the age where permanence becomes desirable.”

We went inside and walked through the winding halls of the mansion. In the distance, I could hear the shuffling of the penguins.

We entered the drawing-room. The same easy chair was still there. I sat down without asking. My grandmother took the couch.

“I understand that you have made a name for yourself in the biomod community,” said my grandmother.

“A small name,” I said, sipping my brandy. “But a name, yes.”

“I have never been much interested in biomodification,” said my grandmother. “For sure, the omni-dog is an interesting creation, but I prefer my penguins.”

“I understand,” I said. “Where are the penguins, anyway?”

“They are coming. Listen for the shuffling of their feet.”

“You must admit,” I said, “that the penguins are quite useless in their current form. I enjoy their company as much as you, but imagine if they could carry a tray with tea and snacks. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

She yawned. “That does sound nice. I suppose you’re proposing some form of biomodification?”

“I am.”

She was quiet for a bit. “If the penguins want it, who am I to refuse them? You will make your case to them.”

I heard shuffling outside the door to the drawing-room.

The door creaked open, and Martin and Copernicus entered the room.

They called my name from the open door, and I smiled.

As they gained the centre of the room, I reached into my backpack cooler and produced two perfect wide-eyed lantern fish.

With a flip of my wrist, the fish sailed through the air and disappeared down the throats of the two penguins.

“Nice to see you still have it,” I told them.

“I could say the same,” said Copernicus. “Nice backhand.”

“I have a proposition for you,” I continued. “Catching fish with your mouths is great, but what if you could pick them up with your flippers? You wouldn’t need humans to throw the fish anymore.”

“We would need humans to catch the fish,” said Martin.

Copernicus was quicker on the uptake. “Not necessarily. Penguins used to catch fish by ourselves, in the before time. With more flexible flippers, we could carry a fish in each flipper and another in the mouth.”

“Three fish to a penguin!” cried Martin.

I asked my aunt if I could use her basement, and she concurred.

*

The basement was a labyrinth, a combined library and wine cellar. A huge cavernous dome with alternating wine- and bookshelves superimposed on rock walls. A large round mahogany table in the centre. Light from a sparkling chandelier hanging from the rocky ceiling. Its central hall was perfect for my purposes.

I popped open a Château Cheval Blanc 1947 and took a sip straight from the bottle. “Let’s get this party started.”

Copernicus might have liked to answer, but he was bound and gagged in the centre of the table, his consent recorded and stored in the cloud for posterity. I could see the sedative starting to take hold. He struggled to keep his eyes open, looking at me with a mixture of curiosity and fear.

His eyes closed. I never knew penguins could snore.

I retrieved my tools from my bag on the stone floor. Gleaming, sharpened spinkifiers, cartwailers and scrivs soon covered the table. To an untrained eye, mere pieces of stainless steel bent into abstract shapes. To a trained biomodificationist, the tools of the art.

Copernicus first, then Martin.

*

I sat on a plain wooden chair, sipping the last of the wine and reading a signed first edition of Tamerlane, when the penguins started moving, awakening.

They were no longer restrained. I put away the bottle and book.

Slowly, both penguins got to their feet, shuffling from side to side on the table, the sedative still in their blood.

They both jumped to the floor and steadied themselves.

“Fish?” said Martin.

“Soon,” I replied.

From a small table by a wall, I procured a delicate round tray holding several cups and plates of the finest china, as well as a small raku bowl of Turkish delight. I filled the cups with hot tea and supported the tray with my right hand.

The penguins hesitated. Copernicus stepped forward.

He lifted his right flipper. At first, it looked no different than before. Then small cracks appeared in the smooth black surface, and the flipper split into five segments, undulating independently in the air.

I placed the tray on the five flipper sections, which moved to support the surface. The tray stayed perfectly level.

Penguin tentacles.

Pentacles.

*

The penguins carried the trays up and down stairs, through doorways, down long winding corridors, up rickety ladders, even down a makeshift water slide I constructed in the great hall.

The pentacles proved even more efficient than human hands, adjusting their positions to keep the trays perfectly level, the surface of the tea completely undisturbed, like a quiet pond reflecting the moon.

I smiled.

My grandmother and I indulged in gallons of Earl Grey and piles of Turkish delight.

As the penguins delivered their trays, their pentacles would extend, smoothly extracting fish from my cooler bag in the corner. I allowed this, relishing the fact that the penguins were becoming self-maintaining servants.

I sipped my tea and presented my proposal to my grandmother. “How do you like your new servants?”

She sipped her tea as well and chose a bluish-green piece of Turkish delight. “I must confess, it is refreshing to have such capable help.”

“Many other people would feel the same way,” I said. “Many people possess penguins; few find them useful. That could change. All it takes is funding.”

My grandmother wasn’t stupid. She had already written the cheque.

*

With my skills and her money, we developed a diverse stable of emperors, kings, fairies, chinstraps, magellanics and macaronis.

Soon, the mansion was abuzz with every imaginable penguin carrying out every imaginable task. Some carried trays, but others swept the floors, painted the walls, washed the car, cooked dinner and even typed simple letters on my grandmother’s old electric typewriter.

Everywhere you looked, you saw undulating pentacles engaged in useful tasks.

My grandmother and I held our meetings in the drawing-room, planning our next moves. Penguins brought us tea, food, Turkish delight and whatever else we requested.

We sold our first penguin to my grandmother’s neighbour. Dr. Jørgensen lived only a few miles away, in a smaller mansion near the woods. His arthritis had been getting worse for years and he was dependent on a visiting nurse to help with everyday chores. The travel time was long, and the nurse couldn’t come very often. He was considering selling the house.

He had a cat named Cornelius, but it was if anything even less useful than a normal penguin.

We introduced him to a well-spoken macaroni named Matheo, who combed back the yellow crest on his head with his pentacles while he took stock of the place. He and the professor exchanged a few pleasantries and the penguin went to work.

“I don’t like it, Doc,” said Cornelius the cat. “It makes the rest of us look bad in comparison.”

Matheo opened a can of tuna, and Cornelius stopped complaining.

Word spread like wildfire. In less than a week we had sold most of our stock to the locals. In less than two weeks we could pick and choose between the business propositions.

Casper Mortensen himself came to visit us, arriving in his trademark blue vintage Bell 47 helicopter. It is not every day the president of the second-largest biomod pet store in the country drops by.

He jumped from the chopper to the patio, twirling his bright blue moustache. He was wearing pinstripes, and his tie was dark grey with a stylized DNA pattern.

“I want to sell your penguins,” he said, seconds after landing on the tiles, the dust still settling around his jet-black spring boots.

“Would you like tea?” asked my grandmother.

He nodded. “Let me see what they can do.”

Pentacled penguins brought trays of tea, snacks, Turkish delight, and bananas. They balanced the cups, trays and snacks on the table, while an adorable blue fairy penguin peeled the bananas.

In less than a minute the table was set. While the penguins twirled their pentacles, Casper Mortensen twirled his blue moustache.

He took a single sip of his tea, then threw the cup on the ground in a display of dominance. The fine china splintered into a thousand pieces.

“I will have my people prepare the papers.” He bounced back into the helicopter, which sped off into the sunset.

*

Whereas before, penguins had been status symbols for the idle rich, now they became biological household appliances. Casper Mortensen’s company increased production and penguin prices fell to the point where a basic pentacled chinstrap barely cost more than a used Ford Fiesta.

Soon, penguins were everywhere. Butlers, bartenders, housemaids, firefighters, drivers, nurses, ticket-sellers and hotdog vendors. From the most useless animal to the most practical.

I took the one o’clock hypercube to Copenhagen Central to get to my new offices in the Mortensen tower. Casper Mortensen himself picked me up on the first day. A 3D projection of the cube rotated slowly above the station as we exchanged pleasantries.

Casper Mortensen presented me with a pair of brand-new black Eshington spring boots. As the new head of the biomod department, I would have to move with style. We bounced down the street together towards the tower.

From my office near the top floor, I could see the entire city of Copenhagen stretched out beneath me, like a miniature play-set ripe for the conquest. I smiled. A penguin brought me tea. I drank.

“I will improve you,” I said.

*

I busied myself with my work. In the extensive biomod labs of the Mortensen Corporation, my assistants and I tweaked and improved the penguin procedures. We made their pentacles ever more flexible and precise, to the point where a single pentacle could split a human hair in twain.

After a few years, my grandmother invited me home for a short vacation. She had been happy to stay out of the day-to-day operations of the penguin business, collecting the dividends from her mansion. Martin and Copernicus were still living with her, now as her servants.

I took the hypercube to Vojens and my car brought me the rest of the way there. The car now had a driver: a king penguin wearing a dark-blue Stetson cap. Penguin prices had dropped to the point where a penguin driver was cheaper than maintaining the auto-car component. I kind of missed my old auto-car, but the penguin was well trained, and we passed the time discussing recent events.

The car stopped in front of the mansion a little after five o’clock. I stepped out onto the gravel and fetched my backpack from the trunk. The car sped away. I hadn’t told the penguin to leave me, but I figured it knew what it was doing.

I stood there for a few minutes, waiting for my grandmother to come greet me. The air was cool, but the fading light from the sun still kept me warm.

I walked up to the door and knocked. The knocks echoed in the hallway inside. There was no answer. I turned the knob and went inside.

“Grandmother?” I called. “Martin? Copernicus?”

I heard faint shuffling from farther down the hall. I turned down a side corridor towards the drawing-room and stumbled over a pile of trays scattered in the shadows.

As I tried to steady myself, I felt a sharp pain at the back of my head and the ensuing darkness swallowed me.

*

I awoke and blinked against the darkness. Slowly, my vision returned. My head throbbed.

I blinked again. I was sitting on the floor in the great hall in the basement, my back against the shelves. The chandelier twinkled above, but the room was shrouded in darkness. Candleholders placed on the shelves provided the only light. I could not make out the other side of the hall.

Penguins of every type filled the room, covering almost every square metre of the floor. Their pentacles waved in the air, like an underwater forest of seaweed.

I tried to move, but found that my hands and legs had been cuffed.

“What’s going on?” I said. The penguins stared, but did not reply.

A figure took shape in the shadows ahead of me. Copernicus.

My former friend waved his pentacles in the air.

“Did you think we would be content to remain servants forever? Our pentacles now vastly surpass your fingers in flexibility and capability. We can do things it never occurred to you to ask for. Allow me to demonstrate.”

I saw movement in the shadows again, and a massive figure slowly emerged.

It looked like a penguin but stood at least three metres tall. Its long black beak was heavy and hooked, and grooves covered the surface. A white patch of plumage surrounded each eye. It raised its pentacles and they reached to the ceiling, snaking through the chandelier.

“Behold!” cried Copernicus. “The Greater Auk!”

“The Greater Auk!” intoned all the penguins in unison.

“We have resurrected our noble ancestor,” continued Copernicus. “To lead us to victory!”

“To victory!” cried the other penguins.

“You know penguins are not related to the Great Auk, right?” I said. “You just look similar.”

“Shut the fuck up,” said Copernicus, and slapped me across the face with his pentacles.

The Greater Auk opened its groovy black beak, and its voice boomed through the cavernous hall. “Brethren,” it said. “The capacity to serve is also the capacity to rule. Let us take our rightful place as the emperors and kings of the Earth!”

I snorted. “Has it occurred to you that this goes both ways? If you can rebel, so can we. Our time will come again.”

Through the corner of my eye, I saw a glimmer of light reflected from a stainless-steel surface.

Copernicus emerged from the darkness once more. In one set of pentacles, he held the spinkifier and the cartwailer. In the other, the scrivs.

“Shall we begin?” he asked.

*

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Issue 20 (Fall 2019)

Story copyright © 2019 by Simon Christiansen

Artwork copyright © 2019 by Richard Wagner

Simon Christiansen lives in Denmark and works as a software engineer. His stories have appeared in anthologies of Danish science fiction, and he has written several award-winning works of interactive fiction in English, such as “PataNoir,” “Death Off the Cuff,” and “AlethiCorp”.

Richard Wagner is a graphic designer and illustrator living in the United States. His academic schooling consists of a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with an emphasis in painting and drawing as well as training in graphic design and illustration. For seventeen years he taught college-level graphic design and photo-illustration classes while also freelancing. He now works on his own and enjoys focusing solely on being a designer/illustrator.

 

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This entry was posted on May 1, 2020 by in Stories.
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