The way the man kept saying his name was unnerving. “What are you talking about?”
“We’ve been watching you. We’ve been witness to your work. We can help you, Mr. Unthank. We can get you into the Impassable Wilderness.”
Joffrey let the business card fall to the desk. He suddenly felt unable to move, as if his muscles had simply ceased functioning. He stared intently at the man, at the little black hairs of his beard, at the gold of his pince-nez. Finally, he found his voice. “You can?” he croaked.
Roger nodded. “Now, can we continue?”
“Wait a second,” said Joffrey. “How?”
“That, too, is unimportant right now.”
“I think it’s pretty important, actually. How do you get in? How will you get me in? I need to have some sort of assurance before I agree to anything.”
The thin man sighed resignedly. “Suffice it to say that I, and anyone who travels with me, am unaffected by the Periphery Bind. I am of Woods Magic.”
“Really, Mr. Unthank, I don’t think nattering over trivial details is the best use of our time.”
“The Periphery Bind—is that the boundary?”
The man nodded.
Joffrey fell back in his chair, his eyes wide. He thrust his hands into his hair and pushed it back compulsively, flattening the greasy strands against his scalp. “Oh man,” he said. Then he said it again: “Oh man.”
Roger, having finally managed to undo all the clasps of the briefcase, produced a yellowing piece of paper, folded into quadrants, and began to flatten it out on his lap. When it had been unfolded, he set it gently on Joffrey’s desk. “Take a look at the schematic,” he said. “Tell me how soon you can produce it.”
Shaking himself from his shocked delirium, Joffrey blinked rapidly to clear his eyes and squinted at the piece of paper. The shape of something came into view, and he knitted his brow to try to make sense of it. When he did, finally, his mouth nearly fell open in shock.
You see, Joffrey Unthank knew machine-part schematics. It was in his blood. His great-grandfather, Linus Mortimer Unthank, had started Unthank Machine Parts in 1914, right at the start of the Great War. The old man’s portrait hung in the main hall of the building. Joffrey had met him only once, though it could be said that he’d only had half a meeting with the man. It had been at his great-grandfather’s deathbed, and Unthank, all of five years old, had been shepherded to the bedside of the dying patriarch to say hello and good-bye. Joffrey remembered the exchange vividly. The smell of the room was close and stifling; the ashy, pale skin of his great-grandfather was almost indistinguishable from the starched white sheets. “Mr. Unthank?” said his father, who’d always referred to his grandfather that way, “I’d like you to meet your great-grandson, Joffrey.” The old man had twisted his head slightly, with apparent difficulty, and spied him out of the corner of his eye. His mouth contorted to speak. “Don’t,” he began. “Don’t. Don’t let it die.” And then, quite coincidentally, he died. No one was ever entirely sure what he meant by it (his prided pot of gardenias was in desperate need of watering just then), but Joffrey always felt, in his heart of hearts, that he meant the shop. Don’t let the machine shop, Unthank Machine Parts, die. And so, as soon as he was able, Unthank threw himself into the business with the enthusiasm of a true entrepreneur. He slashed budgets, he discarded languishing accounts, he fired inefficient employees and hired efficient ones. And to top it all off, he incorporated the nearby orphanage into his business and began using the children for cheap (read: free) labor. He spent every leisure hour studying the history of the trade like an archaeologist, poring over detailed part schematics until his eyes went blurry from the strain. He learned every new machine that came into the shop and studied its inner workings meticulously. His entire life revolved around the shop; even when he was elected to the Quintet, the hierarchy of Industrial Titans, he skipped out on his award ceremony early because he’d only recently bought a collection of early-twentieth-century manifold schematics and was eager to get back to his office and study them. There was not a single blueprint, spec sheet, or circuit diagram with which he was not intimately acquainted.
“What is this?” Unthank asked breathlessly.
“A Möbius Cog. Have you never seen one?”
Unthank, despite himself, said, “No.”
“What does it—?” Unthank stuttered, his attention thoroughly captured by what he saw. “How does it—?” His fingers drifted over the page, feeling the smoothness of the paper. Drawn there in blue-gray ink was the most precise and careful rendering of a machine part that Unthank had ever seen. Every single curve had been painstakingly measured and labeled; every angle drafted with footnoted graphs. As a man who’d studied nearly every schematic to leave a draftsman’s pen, one would assume that Unthank would be able to easily make sense of the cog’s design; but no: It was baffling to him.
Consisting of three toothed rings, the cog was more like a series of gears, revolving around an orblike core. The three rings themselves were toothed like spur gears, but they were each twisted in a way that defied logic, as if each outside surface was also the gear’s inside surface. Somehow, in all their twisting, the teeth of the three gears made contact with one another at just the right spots to create, the schematic presumed, a smooth motion between the separate pieces. Unthank traced the circumference of the entwined cogs and mumbled to himself. Finally, he looked at his visitor with a look of abject surrender.
“It’s not possible,” he said.
The thin man would not be denied. “Surely, that is not so.”
“I mean, it just defies logic. I can’t even imagine the amount of work that was involved in drawing up this blueprint; to actually build it? Impossible. This design, pretty though it is, is pure conjecture! A thing of beauty, no doubt, but so are unicorns, my friend.”
“It is not conjecture.”
Unthank seemed to not hear him. He was back admiring the schematic. “I have to admit, it’s awfully impressive. I’d even go so far as to say genius. Gotta hand it to a guy to have such a fertile imagination to make up something like this.” He clucked his tongue and shook his head.
“Mr. Unthank, I assure you it is not imaginary. It has been made before.”