Mercator shivered. “So that’s it?”
David answered, “Eat some more coal; your boilers are getting low! Yeah, that’s the Green House, your new home.”
The barge floated closer to the mound of green that rose from the bog’s mists. Muddy rises dotted the obscured landscape; this seemed to be the only solid ground as far as the eye could see.
Mercator tossed a dark lump into his mouth and allowed his body to absorb the carbon. His gears warmed and lent heat to his flesh. “So. How much by way of supplies will you be leaving me?”
David eyed him. “You’ll have these crates.” He helped himself to a lump of coal. “I hate coming here. All my gears seize up.”
“Just these? How am I supposed to keep functioning? You said you only visit once a month!”
“After what you did? You deserve no more.” David pressed his lips together and shrugged. “At least, that’s what they tell me. By the way, these crates are for everyone to share, not just you.” Glancing up, he called out, “Oars up!”
The oarsmen lifted dripping oars from the murk. The barge drifted for a moment and bounced against the grassy shore. David allowed his legs to absorb the impact before motioning. “All right. Off you go.”
Mercator stumbled to the stern of the boat. “I can’t get off without getting wet.”
“Then I suggest you move quickly before the damp gets into your pistons,” David answered. He lifted the crate over his head and heaved it onto the shore. “And I would move quickly before we shove off. That would make it far worse for you.” He grunted as he flung a second crate. This one shattered, scattering lumps of coal and tins of canned meat.
As a third crate went flying, Mercator lowered himself into the murk. His flesh leg immediately went to gooseflesh while his geared leg seized up in the sudden wet.
A few steps in the muddy water and Mercator heaved himself onto the grassy bank. A fourth and fifth crate crashed onto the land.
“Oh, word of warning. They’ve heard the crates land. You’ll want to fill your pockets with what you can and run. They’ve been known to cannibalize new arrivals. You don’t look to be the type that’s able to defend himself.” David smiled, revealing his mechanical teeth. “Shove off, men!”
The barge sloshed away as Mercator stood and surveyed the crates around him. Footsteps and ragged breathing came out of the fog. He seized coal by the handfuls and plunged his loot into every pocket he could find.
A shadow transformed into a limping wretch of a man. A white mustache and white stubble covered his face. His mechanical leg refused to move in any way; only his flesh supported him, it seemed. All fuel went to the primary systems to keep him breathing.
Mercator snatched a last handful and backed away a step, wary of the prisoner.
Half a voice called out, “Wait! Wait, please!”
The new arrival limped back, keeping his eyes on the white-haired stranger. His pockets bulged with coal, but in the fog he could feel his gears seizing up. The moisture crept in and clung to every cog in his mechanical parts.
“A new arrival. At last. I’ve been alone for so long,” the one with white hair said. Mercator could hear none of the usual pops and hisses in this one’s voice; he made only flesh sounds. He continued shambling to the supplies. “You have a name?”
“Mercator,” he answered, still keeping his distance.
“Marvelous.” He reached not for coal, but for a tin of meat. He slipped the nail of one mechanical hand under the lid and popped it open. He poured the entire foul contents into his mouth, meat and juice. “You never feel until your boilers finally stop. And then you wish you never felt at all.”
Mercator glanced away into the mist but heard no stomping of feet, no hiss of steam. “Where are the others?”
The one with the white hair flung his flesh hand to the landscape. “There.” He opened a second tin and gobbled. “They had not the courage to gear down, to live the half-life of the only flesh. They lie under the soil now.” He looked sadly at Mercator. “In the end, the grass claims us all.”