Over the next days, Mercator wandered the island. He rationed his coal as best as he could, but even then the reserves ran low far too quickly. His new companion, named Parrais, followed at a safe distance and answered questions. None other appeared from the mist. It took only three days to circle the island called the Green House. Trees grew in tight thickets, but a thick green carpet of grass and moss covered most of the island.
Parrais would point to small mounds. “Yes. That one was Tantalioux, captured in the war. He starved himself on purpose. The grass grew right over him.”
To another, he would gesture. “Poor Marcus. He thought he only needed coal. Ignored his flesh completely. Like you. His body gave out, of course. We were never made to ignore half ourselves.”
Once his tour was over, Mercator sat on the edge of the marsh and looked over the water. “Do you ever wonder if you could cross?” He looked back at the wild white-haired half-man. “I mean, since you’ve geared down. Your machinery doesn’t do much for you anymore anyway, does it?”
Pallais shrugged. “Perhaps. Those gears that prod my heart to beat and force my lungs to expand are still in working order, even if the peripherals have started to rust. I suspect, though, that even if the water didn’t damage those machineries, I would sink to the bottom. My flesh still demands oxygen.”
“What is it like to be half alive?”
“Hm? Oh. Well, I suppose it is something like being half dead.” Pallais smiled with the half of his mouth that worked. “But then, I always viewed the boiler as half full.” He laughed his empty laugh.
Over the next days, Pallais consumed very little coal, but kept returning to those tins of meat. Mercator sampled one and found it rancid. “How do you eat this offal?”
Pallais smiled. “Food for the stomach and food for the mind! If I do not feed my flesh, how will I ever devise a way to return to society? How will I ever escape this prison?” He glanced down at the tin. “You will understand. Or the grass will claim you. I would prefer that you keep your flesh healthy, though, as your machinery will avail you naught.”
“You do seek a way of escape?”
The old man cast his eyes over the mist-enshrouded island. “In many ways this is home. But yes, I would return to society.”
“Why did they accuse you of?”
He huffed a laugh. “I suspect you were a politician, phrasing your question as such. You did not ask what I did or what I might be guilty of, but merely what they accused me of. Smart lad. But it is better that we not discuss such matters. Our past has abandoned us; why should we chase after it? Here in this isle of green, we are whatever we say we are. I might be a duke, and you a general. I might be a spy, and you a stable boy. All I know is that you are Mercator, and all you know is that I am Pallais. And that should be how it is.” He stared off into the distance. “Though I suspect that your words from days ago have sparked an idea.”
He stood, his eyes fixed on some distant horizon. “If I should fall, do not journey after me.”
And with that, the old man waded into the water, his joints creaking, his gears grinding. His flesh foot sloshed along, deeper and deeper. The man coughed. His geared leg remained as frozen as it ever had. He limped deeper into the water, up to his waist.
At last he turned and called with his half voice, “With your help, we shall flee the Green House and return to society. What say you?”
That night as he slept, the old man crept close. “Oh dear,” he mumbled to myself. “Already it has begun. Young man, I pray the grass does not take root too deeply.”
Pallais gazed down at the seedlings sprouting from Mercator’s geared shoulder.
The grass that would devour him.