by John D. Lees
Heya Proffy!" Netty squealed as she tore into the dimly lit lab, "Whatcha doin'?"
Professor Jack MacPhereson looked up from the bench where he was preparing a solution of extracted Gorgon residue. The yellow-brown substance smoked, hissed and gurgled in the beaker. There was a stench in the air; but with so many foul smells about, MacPhereson rarely noticed anything but the most rank odors.
"How many times…" the nocker chided, his tone heavy and his red cheeks growing even moreso as he watched the Gorgon extract fizz. The pooka's arrival and all the noise she made with it only served to make the unstable extract that much more dangerous.
"Have-I-told-you-not-to-call-me-Proffy," Netty continued in a mocking version of the Professors voice. She cocked her head to the side and stared at his current project.
Netty was a Dog pooka in her late Wilder years. The Professor had hoped at one point that she would have calmed down as she got older, settling into a quiet and less active phase as her grumpdom approached. No such luck. Nevertheless, he was hopelessly attracted to her, and thus allowed the bouncy brunette access to his workshop despite the havoc she sometimes wreaked. The floppy ears and light brown fur mixed with black might have been something of a turnoff to a natty sidhe, but a nocker got his kicks wherever he could find them and MacPhereson thought it made her look cute.
"Whatcha doin' then? " Netty inquired again.
"I am seeking a method by which I might be able to transform nosey pooka into stone." The Professor replied pouring the brown liquid into a thick glass tube.
"Oooooooooooh," Netty cooed, her eyes on the foaming purple liquid in the beaker as it started to take on the coloration of its new addition. "Wanna try it out on me? It'd be okay cuz I been turned to stone before."
The nocker's impressive eyebrow arched as he stared at the pooka.
"No really!" she professed, "It was a slaugh who did it, mean and nasty one out of Greystraights. Then his friends put me in a truck and I went down to Downriver and then over to Rollinghills and then back to Whitesands all caught like this," she made a pathetic attempt to stand still in an awkward position but her tail wagged to and fro excitedly. "Boy was I tired from all that standing."
The nocker refused to contemplate whether the whole thing she said was a lie or just the last part. Attempts to unravel the fibs of the pooka were by-and-large fruitless. He merely slid his glasses up and twisted a brass knob at the base of the glowing ball of light on the bench. If one stared at the ball long enough, they could see motes of Dreamstuff swirling inside, not captured as much as directed into oval patterns.
"I love it when you do that Proffy." Netty blurted out as the Dreamstuff bulb flared into something approaching normal light.
"Oops," she said her paw-like hands over her muzzle. "Sorry Proffy, I for-got."
The nocker's face grew more and more red, almost blotting out the white. Seizing the opportunity, Netty began rooting through the objects on his bench while he literally steamed. The pooka sifted through the beakers and bottles and little brass bits on his workspace the nocker tried to grab them all away from her. With each thing she picked up, the profanity grew worse and the Professor's efforts to stop her pawing grew more harried. By the time Netty was using two hands to pluck random items that sparked and crackled, gurgled and hissed, the bright red-faced nocker caught himself. She just did it to make him flustered.
MacPhereson thrust his hand into the pocket of his long coat, emerging with a small chunk of black rock into which he poured the obscenities his frustration fueled. Without the nocker to annoy, the pooka grew tired of her game, and set the objects back down as quickly as she had picked them up. A whisp of smoke drifted up from the workbench where some hissing red liquid splashed from a test-tube. After a few seconds, during which the pooka tried to figure out what the nocker was whispering to the stone, the Professor shoved the black stone back into his pocket and appeared much more calm. His face returned to its usual unusual coloration; the chalky white and red-highlights restored to their original proportions.
"Have you just come for the comedy Netty?" MacPhereson remarked with the unusual calm he usually felt after whispering into the Basilisk's stone, "or was there some purpose to your visit?"
"I just came to see you Proffy!" Netty squeaked, smacking a kiss full on his lips. The nockers face reddened more as he sputtered, but not from anger this time.
"What are you gonna do when you find a way to turn pooka into stone?" Netty asked, mercifully not commenting on his reaction to her last outburst of affection. Theirs was a strange relationship. Netty flirted with MacPhereson outrageously, but never went beyond stealing kisses or making suggestive looks. For his part, the Professor was too shy to do anything about his feelings; but Netty knew of the secret ledger he kept in the back room documenting how he really thought about her…
"That was not my purpose."
"You lied to me!" Netty's shocked voice dripped sarcasm.
"Yes I did you little Naar," the Professor countered, feeling the calm of his Basilisk's stone disappear as he let out a sigh. "I am working on Factor P."
"What's Factor P?" Netty asked, her head cocked to the side. The nocker shuffled a bit, embarrassed that he had revealed even that much to the intrusive pooka. "It's a silly name."
"No it is not." he countered.
"Why call it that then?" She asked
Sheepishly, the nocker looked down at the now-empty beaker of Gorgon Extract. "Because the last elixir I invented was Factor O."
The pooka looked at him for a moment.
"Well okay, maybe it isn't so silly then," she readily agreed. Too readily. This only made the nocker more flustered since it was well known that pooka literally had to lie. "What is this stuff supposed to do?"
"You would not understand Factor P."
Netty put her hands to her hips and stared at him. "Yes I would."
"No you would not."
"Yes I would."
"No-" the nocker stopped himself. Then straightened up and tried to muster what dignity he could.
"My theory rests partially on Professor Hammond Glasswhistle's famous Footnote number three in The Migratory Nature of the Goola and Theophillous T. Malanagaster's seminal Secrets of Chimerical Extracts. Of course, I have made subsequent alterations to tailor it to my purposes and taken it outside of the realm of theory."
The pooka stared at him for a moment. When she spoke, it was to declare with complete confidence: "See. I understood all that."
"That was not a technical explanation Netty," the Professor explained patiently. The pooka motioned for him to continue. "Technically, I am using the Glasswhistle monad-pactrose bonding system to combine and recombine extracted samples of Chimera, stimulated by Chimerical Alchemy as suggested by Malanagaster, and FUBAR-generated electricity with Gematrical manipulation of my own artifice in order to create a formula. This formula will enhance the presence of the individual who imbibes the resulting philter by altering areas of the brain that control behavioral interaction patterns. The end result being a more dominating presence and enhanced degree of assertive behavior that others will find compelling."
The pooka just stared at him.
"I am trying to make myself more charismatic."
"Oh," the pooka replied, "Why?"
"Because none of these frabblegrabbing cukeheaded Sots ever listens to me!" MacPhereson exploded.
"I listen to you Proffy."
"The pooka's capacity for little white lies aside," replied the nocker somewhat more calmly, "thank you."
"None of them do!" he declared, pointing towards Lowtown Hall. "This 'alliance' with the Dreck-slucking Count of Greystraights is just another example of the kind of cucking stupidity of our furking farblunjent Mayor."
The pooka fell silent, looking up at the ceiling.
Netty looked at him, her eyes the size of saucers. She shook her head far too quickly, ears flopping against the sides of her face. The nocker's voice lowered. "You did not come here just to pester me did you?"
"Yes I did."
"No you did not." he charged.
"Not," the nocker's face grew more red.
"Too!" the wilder stamped her foot.
"Not!" the nocker yelled, feeling his eyebrows prickle.
"Not." The pooka quickly countered.
The Professor almost fell into the 'Bugs Bunny' trap, but stopped himself, giving Netty an icy look. "Out with it."
"Well, maybe there was some other little teeny-tiny detail that they sent me to take care of."
"But nothing I might be interested in." the nocker replied sarcastically. The council employed the services of the pooka as a messenger. Usually, it was to deliver missives and orders for technical advice that were either too large to send by message tube or too sensitive. Even if the nocker doubted the stupidity of the Council, it would have been more than obvious that any institution choosing a pooka for a messenger had to be on the dense side. That was like making a satyr the sidhe's Harem guard.
"I guess then maybe you should let me know what it is," the nocker strained for calm The pooka hesitated a moment, an easy lie coming to her lips. With a gulp, she tried to swallow the pesky thing down though. Netty knew why the Mayor had sent her to tell the Professor, that fact alone gave her the confidence to tell MacPhereson the truth… "The Count is sending an emissary to talk to the Mayor." She whispered, "He'll be here by mid-week."
"What!" MacPhereson burst out as the pooka started to run. She didn't stop until she got to the door; and even then only long enough to flip the brass and oak panel open and scramble through as the sound of broken glass and clinking metal raged behind her.
The morning of the Emissaries arrival was an unusually somber time for Netty. The pooka picked her way around Widget Marketplace, hardly seeing anyone or anything but her inner turmoil. The Professor, a subject she found herself thinking about more and more lately, had been in seclusion since she saw him last. According to the stories his boggan housekeeper Drusilla told the owner of the Drunken Stag and then he told her (in the strictest of confidence of course!), the Professor was hard at work perfecting the Factor P formula.
Netty crept into the backroom of the workshop as Drusilla placed some fresh coffee to the side of the stove. The plump boggan smiled when she saw the pooka, and Netty returned the gesture easily. For all of her boggan nonsense over propriety, Drusilla was a good sort of fae.
"Hiya Dru," she said, "where's the Proffy?"
"Shush you little ragamuffin," Drusilla warned, "he's asleep."
"Yes dear," Drusilla explained, wrapping a shawl about her shoulders, "Been at it all night. Professor MacPhereson said he wanted to take a rest before that Emissary of the Count's arrived."
"Oh," Netty drew closer, her voice down to a conspiratorial whisper. "Is it done?"
"Factor P!" the pooka exclaimed. "Proffy said I would be the first to know when he got finished."
The boggan glanced sideways at the pooka, then nodded. "Yes m'dear, its a-fizzing away on his bench. Nasty brew that, an' I don't care if he knows I said it! Last week he nearly blew himself up with one of them strange concoctions."
The pooka gasped. "Is it really dangerous?"
"As if anything a nocker didn't make wasn't dangerous," Drusilla clucked. The boggan took Netty by the paw and started to lead her out of the room. "Now out you go Netty, the Professor needs his rest even if it is just to blow himself up."
The satyr sent to speak with the Lowtowners was a Greybeard named Falton, arriving with two redcap guards of the Unseelie Count. Falton would have preferred leaving them behind, but the Count's instructions were quite specific on the matter… Now he sat in the Mayor's office at Lowtown Hall, bidding his time for the council meeting. Count Dartmouth chose the satyr as the best fae to deliver the message to the fiercely independent Lowtowners. There were certainly others the Unseelie Lord considered more capable, but Falton had a manner of speech and style the nockers seemed to appreciate. The Ailil lord and his sidhe courtiers had not settled well with the Lowtowners in past meetings, who felt pressured by their presence.
"You know the Duchy will soon fall into Chaos," Falton declared. He wrapped his hand about a mug of the powerful nocker-brewed beer. "An alliance with the Lord Dartmouth would be most advantageous I think; the best thing really."
Baxter Goldentongue sat back while he watched the satyr drink his sister's foul muck. Proud as he was of his nocker heritage, Baxter knew better than to actually think that nocker beer tasted anything but the inside of a crank-case - and his sister's was no better than any of the other swill brewed by his Kith.
"I doubt the fighting will spread here Falton," Goldentongue mused. Trouble was on the wind, and the nockers knew it as well as anyone else, but Lowtown had long survived outside of the direct rule of the sidhe, an island of commoners left alone by the Duke so long as they remained outside of local politics.
"One never knows," Falton replied, his face stoic and his razorblade voice catchy. "You have some agitators here among your wilders, some troublemakers who might try to capitalize on the chaos." Baxter himself had to agree, nodding his head back and forth while the satyr continued. "Not to mention the Mad Political Scientist."
"Professor MacPhereson?" Baxter burst out, the Count's information was good indeed, MacPhereson was an outspoken opponent of the alliance between Greystraights County and Lowtown, a council member in name but he usually skipped most of the meetings. "A crackpot, nothing more."
"I've heard stories," the emissary explained, "of how he is trying to create some new elixir that may just make him Mayor…"
"Just that," Baxter assured him, "stories. Nothing more. The Professors theories about engineering are brilliant, but he is something of a Alter Kocker when it comes to more practical matters…."
"Alter Kocker. A cranky fussbucket," Baxter replied with a smirk. "He's rather harmless. All steam and no heat as we say around here."
The satyr nodded slowly, his eyes narrowed.
Jack MacPhereson started awake, emerging from the recurring dream in which he was delivering a speech at the Parliament of Dreams without any pants. The nocker fumbled for the switch of his Dreamstuff globe. Swiftly, the excited Dreamstuff swirled in faster patterns, providing a soft light to illuminate his workbench.
Before him sat the end result of the Professor's lengthy studies and frantic quests: Factor P. This would be a crowning achievement, the advance that would allow him to reach others and communicate the things which were in his heart and his mind without his own social blundering getting in the way. Factor P was not designed to subvert the thoughts of others as some imagined, merely to allow the drinker's sincere beliefs clear expression… once the council saw his dedication and logic, they would understand. There would be no stumbling over words to get in the way, no uncomfortable pauses and stuttering. Through science - not the banal science of the mortals, but the elegant and sometimes unpredictable science of his own kind - the nocker would be able to communicate clearly for once.
As he contemplated the gold-colored fluid before him, the Professor drew a brass timepiece from the inside pocket of his vest. "Cuck!" the nocker exclaimed. The emissary from Greystraights had been at Lowtown Hall for more than a half hour already, no doubt filling the fool council with Royalist nonsense.
Frantically, the nocker repaired his voile; smoothing the white vest as he fussed at his cravat, leaving the long coat unbuttoned then re-fluffing the wisp of lace at his cuff. Finally, MacPhereson took up the vial, noting how the sides were slick. The unstable mixture had probably boiled over during his rest even though stoppered, but the product certainly looked stable now. With a grimace, the Professor removed the cork stopple and downed half of the philter in a single gulp, the amber liquid burning his throat. It was bad tasting, salty and acid-bitter, but then no one had ever accused alchemy of producing too-sweet results.
The council sat silent before the Emissary and Mayor on the raised platform of the impromptu councilroom. Actually, it was an antechamber off the cafeteria of Lowtown Hall. Technically, the meeting was to be open to all of the members of Lowtown, but since it was held in a secret location at an unannounced time, Baxter knew that most of the troublemakers could not attend: Leaving the thorny matter to the council. The only councilmember not present was MacPhereson, who had not been told of the place and rarely attended anyway. While Goldentongue did not like the idea, he knew that it was the only way to protect his beloved community.
The satyr stood behind the makeshift rostrum, his master's two redcaps standing to the side of the raised platform. He had just finished the presentation of his Count's offer of alliance. The excitement of the debate had whipped the Unseelie satyr's fierce passions, the fine-tuning of their fears and perceptions intoxicating him like a subtle fay wine. I doubt any sidhe could have done better, Falton mused, and given the Lowtowners, there was a good chance they would have done worse.
"If there are no others who would speak.…" Baxter Goldentongue proclaimed in his sotto official voice, raising the silver hammer of his office with some reluctance.
Before the Mayor could close the motion however, a newcomer pushed his way through the doors, causing something of a commotion at the back of the small room. A stir began among the council members farthest from the rostrum as the figure pushed through them. Finally, when the tangle of bodies dissipated, the Professor stood at the end of the massive table.
And he was pissed.
"Professor MacPhereson," the Mayor ventured, "if you have something to add…"
"I do!" the nocker announced bombastically. "Now that I have finally made it through those furking pishers outside." Goldentongue blanched a bit. He had told the functionaries of Lowtown Hall to make sure that MacPhereson didn't get inside once the meeting started.
The satyr emissary kept silent. Falton resented the intrusion more than as a mere breach of decorum; he had the Council eating from his hand, ready to agree to his Lord's plan… this 'Mad Political Scientist' as he was known was identified as a potential problem, no matter how hard Goldentongue tried to make him out to be harmless.
"So this one has given his spiel already eh?" the Professor began derisively, waiving his hand in the direction of the satyr emissary. "Sorry I missed it, but then I am sure that it was nothing new. See I have heard it before." Felton almost took up the nocker's gauntlet; but the Professor continued before he could speak.
"He probably told you all about how trouble was coming," the nocker guessed, "he probably told you about how terrible things would happen here when they do. How the sidhe noble he serves would 'make-things-all-right' for us. Take care of things as it were, protect us from the horrible possibilities of war and conflict."
There was silence. Falton knew that MacPhereson was a greater threat than even his sluagh spies had made him out to be. According to them he was something of a crackpot, only mildly dangerous to the Count's plans. This nocker however was a dyed-in-the-wool rabble rouser. The emissary was mindful however, that interrupting the nocker was a dangerous thing. If the others thought he was attacking one of their own, even one they did not necessarily like…
"This goat-legged perv probably went on to explain in excruciating details how the Count would help." The Professor paused a moment, surveying those assembled. "What he meant was that the Count would help himself to Lowtown," the Professor stabbed a finger at the redcaps, "by sending more of those shtunks in to 'help' us during the inevitable unpleasantness he plans to start himself."
Felton motioned for the redcaps to contain their tempers. Now was not the time for them to retaliate. That would come later.
"How long would that 'help' last," MacPhereson pondered bitterly, "before it becomes an occupation?"
An outburst of murmurs began while Felton saw the careful argument he had built start to unravel.
"Remember the Resurgence?" the Professor asked rhetorically. "When they came slinking back from Arcadia, where they had abandoned us so long ago?" There was some angry muttering as the nocker picked at old wounds. "The sidhe come out of the Deep Dreaming preaching how we should hand over power. Then they decided to take power. Does anyone remember the Gangrenous Lady and Hell's Harbinger?" the satyr winced as the nocker cited two of the infamous Lowtown ironclads which the nobles sunk under the waters of Lake St. Clair. "How about the Beltaine Massacre? the Great Lakes Campaign… the Battle of Philadelphia…?" the Professor pointed at one of the veterans of the last conflict, a Troll in the corner who still bore scars from blades of cold iron who gave him a single nod.
The Councilmembers started to buzz and whisper amongst one another, if nockers could ever really whisper anything when they got their dander up. Felton watched the staid and reserved councilmembers, the most Conservative since the Accordance War, turn into radicals before his very eyes.
"That was war!" Felton charged, trying to whittle down MacPhereson's argument. The satyr refused to admit defeat to a man everyone labeled crackpot. "A war between commoners and nobles. It was terrible, I know. I fought in it myself, side by side with some of you against the Duke's men. But this is different." he paused a moment. "This will be different, more of a civil war that crosses class and kith boundaries. Ally with the Count to make a strong front-"
"A strong front emissary?" The Professor interrupted, sarcasm dripping from each syllable. "What your noble friends did not gain from force of arms during Accordance you would gain by secret treaties and backroom politics now. Where King Dafyll and Duke Vochfort failed here, you would succeed." The nocker waived his hands in the air. "Admittedly Lowtown emerged from your War not totally free, but under the rulesof the Duke not his yoke. We have maintained our independence steadfast since then. Would we now make ourselves subjects of some Unseelie Count rather than free citizens? Will we give in to fear?" MacPhereson stared out at the council: "Will you finally allow the sidhe to control this place under the guise of some tinfoil alliance?"
While the debate had only just started in earnest, the satyr emissary stared out at the Councilmembers already tasting his defeat.
MacPhereson burst into the workshop, startling his housekeeper and coming face-to-face with the fuzzy brown pooka waiting by the door for his arrival.
"Proffy!" Netty exclaimed jumping about excitedly, her tail wagging.
The Professor did not even bother to correct the pooka, grabbing her by the shoulders in a rough embrace and kissing her smack on the lips. One second passed, then two, then more as the pooka's tail swished back and forth in an increasing rhythm. MacPhereson only stopped when Drusilla began to tap her wooden spoon against the side of the brass pot simmering on his stove.
"I take it ye won," Drusilla observed dryly.
"I did!" MacPhereson yelled, letting go of the pooka and swooping the housekeeper into his arms for an impromptu jig. The staid boggan allowed herself to become swept up into the Professor's excitement. Netty skipped and danced around them. The merriment lasted for a few minutes, then the boggan housekeeper went back to their supper. Finally, with a jaunty wave, the Professor strode into the workshop proper, followed by the excited pooka messenger.
"It worked!" the Professor announced with great pride. "It worked!"
"What?" Netty asked.
"Factor P!" He sat down at the bench, collecting his scattered lab notes. "I must prepare another dose, but I think I would leave out the Gorgon extract this time… it gave the thing an awfully bitter taste." The Professor began to mutter to himself almost unintelligibly as he usually did when confronted with a chance to tinker, already devising several more combinations he wanted to try to make Factor P even more efficacious.
The pooka chewed her bottom lip. The nocker looked up, sensing Netty's reluctance to speak. The pooka tried to smile, but could only make it a lopsided one.
"What?" the nocker inquired.
MacPhereson's bushy white eyebrows drew together, his reddened cheeks growing darker. "What!" he demanded.
"I didn't do anything."
"You didn't do what?" he asked.
"I didn't pour out Factor P while you were taking your nap." Netty announced with complete aplomb. "And you snore!"
"I do not," the Professor sputtered, then caught the significance of the first part of her statement. "you did What?!" he roared. The pooka shied back, her tail between her legs. "Not me. I didn't. Ask Drusilla."
The nocker advanced. "I'm asking you Netty."
"Why would I do something like that…?" the pooka inquired lightly, her voice trailing off at the end. "It was Dru's idea."
"Upagofargin Mollercoddle Bodget!" the Professor snapped.
Backing herself into a corner, Netty smiled again, her eyes a trifle desperate now. "Gesundheit."
"That was not a Sneeze batlan!"
Netty's eyes grew wide and she forced the now suprised nocker back. A useless wastrel he called her. "You take that back you… you… Farbissen!"
"Farbissen!" the nocker raged, his voice growing shrill. Netty blinked, it was one of the few nocker swear words she could say without blushing even if it didn't strictly apply. "Why would you do something stupid like pour Factor P down my drain!"
"I didn't!" she announced, hands on her hips, "I gave it to the dog. He was thirsty and he needed something to drink"
"You what!" The nocker yelled, his hands shaking by his sides.
"Okay," she relented, "I gave it to the cat, you like that better?"
"No!" the Professor raged, repeating it several times.
"It gave him gas." Netty explained. "He darn near drove all of the rats from the alley. It still smells like limburger back there and I think the stones are gonna have to be thrown out to get rid of the smell."
"All his potions give you gas," Drusilla commented just loud enough to be heard from the back room.
"So you did it to save me from having gas!?!" the nocker exploded.
"I did it for a better reason than that, even though you stink anyway you old fussy crank."
"Because you didn't need it." the pooka responded, clapping her hands over her mouth. The look of horror on her face spoke volumes. pooka lied like other people breathed, but that was the unvarnished truth, even if it was just from her own point of view.
He sat down - his energy drained out of him as the pooka went on talking. "And you went in there and you did it right?' He nodded numbly. "You never needed Factor P. Or Factor O whatever that was. Well maybe you did need it," she paused, "you needed something to believe in that would give you the confidence you lack in yourself. I think it's stupid. You have all sorts of good ideas…" She hesitated as the nocker's eyebrow arched. "Okay, you have some really good ideas and a lot of weird ones, but they're yours, and they're cool and they are what make you… you."
"And you are sweet and kind and smart no matter how crotchety you seem. That's why I stick around you clown, not for your stunning conversational skills or your immense wealth," Netty waived her hands around the cluttered workshop. "That and Drusilla's cooking. I love the way she makes Liver."
"You hate liver." MacPhereson reminded her absently.
Netty said nothing.
The Professor turned around and started to collect his notes, thoughts returning to the science of the Project so as to avoid thinking about the pooka's revelation. Even if I did not take Factor P I have still made some important alchemical discoveries in the process, he mused, and refined the bonding system. That should be good for a paper or two. Of course nothing says that Factor P could not have worked for all intents and purposes… then he stopped.
The Dog pooka looked back from the door. "Yeah?"
"What the Furk did I drink then?"
"Um," Netty started to stutter, then blurted out "something I made up in the back room."
"What?" the exasperated nocker demanded.
His eyes narrowed. "How?"
"She made a whole great big pot of coffee before she left."
The Professor looked at her, whatever he drank certainly wasn't coffee. Raising the vial to his nose for a good whiff, MacPhereson noted the amber yellow color that would have made it awfully weak coffee. Then the Professor's eyes grew wide and he started to sputter. The pooka tore off through the kitchen and out the back door as he ran after, yelling at the top of his lungs.