The Frequency of Honey

6 Jul 2019, 2:47 p.m.

This is a science-fantasy short story I wrote in 2008 for the Pod Writers' Guild. Several months later, I started working in a chemical-sensor lab, and was amazed by how well I'd predicted the work in this piece.

As the children came down the stairs, socks slipping on the polished boards, they saw through the open kitchen door that the table had been set for breakfast. It had been set, in fact, for any conceivable combination of breakfast that could be desired, and for many helpings of that. The time-worn oak surface was hardly visible beneath the plates of bread rolls, pastries, sliced cold meats, cheese and fruit. A ewer of milk and a tall glass jug of orange juice stood towards the back of the spread, next to the china teapot and a copper coffee pot. Jars of preserves and pickles had taken over a whole corner of the table. Still fussing over an arrangement of cereals on the other side stood the family's weekend guest, the tall Professor.

“Ah! Children!” he cried, straightening up – a process that took him longer than most people the children had seen, since he had further to go. “You rise earlier than I had imagined. I meant this as a little surprise.”

The three children had stopped at the doorway, Michael and George hiding a little behind Belinda, the oldest. At this direct address, she became aware of her duties as de facto hostess and stepped forward.

“That's quite all right, um, Professor. Mum and dad aren't usually up for about another hour on Saturdays. Can we, er, help you with anything?”

He stood back and looked at his work. “Well ... I think this banquet is nearly completed! I just have a few more preparations to make, and those are of rather a technical nature ... Let me see. Are you allowed to use the taps, young fellow?” He craned at George, who shrank back briefly and then replied with a stout, “Yes!”

“Excellent! Then would you and your brother be so good as to fill this vase with water and make these flowers at home in it?” The Professor brandished a bunch of fading flags that looked, Belinda thought, suspiciously like those in the neighbours' garden, and the boys set to work. “Now, you look like a scientifically-minded young lady,” he addressed her. “I think I could use your help setting up the last of my equipment. Follow me.”

The pantry was connected to the kitchen by a polished oak door, much like the rest of the doors in the house but slightly smaller. At least, it had been. The door had been taken off its hinges and laid down over a couple of trestles, providing an impromptu bench that supported a bewildering range of objects. Several white boxes sat in a row, their plastic casings altered in places to admit new metal pipes or strange attachments. Belinda's mother's food processor sat at one end, a wide rubber band wrapped around its rotor and disappearing somewhere. There were other things on the bench, more or less obscured by a tangled growth of wires and cables that trailed off eventually to an overloaded extension cord.

Having led Belinda to this mess, the Professor now seemed to forget she was there, bending over a set of dials at one end. “Ah!” he cried out suddenly, as a blue spark jumped between his fingers and the machinery. He shook his hand, dispelling smoke. “Nearly got it. Now, my dear! Would you please observe the screen down there to your right? Yes, that's right. Just push those wires behind it, don't worry, they're only for the printer, but don't! Don't get them in that liquid nitrogen! Good heavens, then we would be in trouble. Mind your fingers, too. Hmm.”

Belinda poked the wires back as far as she dared with a wooden spoon she had found lying on a pile of greasy, discarded-looking gears. The screen was grey, with a green dot dancing erratically across it. As she watched obediently, the dot began to trace out more regular patterns.

“Just shout out when it's a straight line!” The Professor was concentrating on the dials again, stooped so far forward that a lock of grey-streaked dark hair tapped them as he nodded to himself. “Now? Good. Fastest calibration yet. You clearly have a gift, dear girl.”

The two boys had again crowded behind Belinda, fascinated by the chaotic equipment but not daring get too close to it. “Please sir,” Michael piped, “what's all this for? And do we have to wait for Mummy and Daddy to have our breakfast?”

“Oh, I dare say you can begin soon,” the Professor said genially, standing back and admiring his work. “Your father was saying at dinner last night how interested he is in my work, so I thought I would take the opportunity of demonstrating it to him, not to mention collecting some data while I was at it.” He spun suddenly around, snatching at a heap of cloth on the dresser that became a long white coat when he shook it out and dug in its pockets. “You see this egg!” It was a brown egg. He handed it to Michael and threw George the coat.

“Science, and perhaps your home economics teachers, tell us that this egg is made up of water, proteins, fatty acids and vitamins. When poached, it makes a tasty morsel; under, ah, other circumstances it might have produced a baby chick. But, unbeknownst to even the most informed home economist, there is more that we can discover about this egg.

“... Now, none of us think well on an empty stomach.” The Professor led the children back to the breakfast table, where the food shone invitingly in the golden morning sunshine, and handed them each a plate, a bowl and one of their parents' best dinner-party napkins. As they collected food – toast and jam for Michael, chocolate cereal and ham for George, croissants and strawberries for Belinda – he poured them each a tall glass of juice, and added more coffee his own already stained mug. The two boys found spaces just big enough to set down their plates and tucked in immediately, curiosity and strangeness not really being a match for hunger. Belinda, though, nibbled flakes from a croissant and kept her eyes on the jumble of equipment across the room. She could just about trace the connections between the devices (that one was a microscope, she thought; that looked more like a metal funnel covered in digital watches) but she couldn't even guess at their purposes.

“I knew you had the look of the scientist about you, dear girl,” the Professor's booming voice interrupted her. “Afraid this is all a bit beyond bottle volcanoes and red cabbage indicators, though.”

“Do you bring all this everywhere you go?” she asked.

“Oh, most of it. Some parts required improvisation, but a professor who can't set up an experiment without help from a lesser-spotted graduate student ought not, in my view, to be a scientist at all.”

“When Mum said you were coming, she said you were the new kind of professor,” Belinda said shyly. “The kind who wasn't, um...”

“My dear,” the Professor chided her, taking a final slurp from his coffee mug. “The only sane professor is a mad one who knows you're still watching him. Now, shall we begin? Dear boy! Please pass me that wheaten farmhouse loaf!”

He leapt towards his bench, a new animation taking hold of his spider-like limbs. With a cry of, “This is perfectly safe,” he slid the loaf onto a metal plate beneath the strange funnel and tapped buttons in a wild rhythm. The food processor began to whirr intermittently, red LEDs blinked across the table and an odd blue nimbus showed faintly around the bread. As the Professor ran up and down, checking displays and tweaking dials, Belinda saw that the pattern on the screen had settled into a brilliant green wobbly line.

“Look!” she cried.

“Ah, perfect. This line, children, represents what might be called the moral character of the food. The hills and valleys make up a different map for every type of food, and it is always the same for each – an excellent guide to the constitution of what we propose to ingest.”

Michael and George were not really listening, though the Professor hadn't noticed. Instead they were tussling under the table for possession of something small. As older sister, Belinda hissed at them briefly before turning back to the “map” on the screen.

“In the frequency map for this wheaten loaf, we see a peak here and here, corresponding to the values of honesty and hard work. This gentle incline, cycling up which would present a pleasant challenge, shows an uncomplicated warmth of attitude; the situation of this valley indicates a lack of unnecessary aggression. All in all, a most wholesome foodstuff.”

George looked up from his tug-of-war with Michael for long enough to say, “Sir, it's smoking.” Underneath the funnel, the blue haze around the loaf had developed yellow licking flames at the edges and a fine smoke was rising from it.

“Good heavens! We can't have that!” The Professor grabbed the bread and beat it against his trousers until burnt pieces of crust were scattered around his feet, then relaxed. “This procedure children, is eminently repeatable and almost entirely non-disruptive to the food. Young fellows, would you care to propose a food for another demonstration?”

Both George and Michael's heads sprang up. Each was suddenly eager to fiddle with the machine, if it set things on fire, and both loosened their grip on their treasure at the same time. When the matchbox had fallen to the floor, half-open, Belinda saw a dazed-looking bee crawl out of the slot and slowly take to the air.

“Sir! Let's do a banana! I bet that would make a great fire,” George said.

“No, let's do honey. It'll go all like toffee,” Michael said.

To head off another fight, Belinda reached over the tops of their heads and took a honey jar from the table. “Here you go, Professor,” she said. She heard the bee's wings settle into a steady buzz and hoped it would stay out of her brothers' clutches this time.

“Thank you.” He attempted to fit the entire jar in the test space but it was too tall. Instead he scooped half of the honey onto the plate with a large screwdriver, which he handed to Belinda to lick. “Here we go! Observe carefully, children, the precise sequence of adjustments I must make!” With an enormous grin, the Professor dashed to the other side of the bench, his fingers darting between the stacked appliances too quickly to keep track of. He flicked switches, adjusted the speed of the food processor and, after a brief mental calculation, pushed buttons that changed the constellation of LEDs completely.

“How're we doing?” the Professor asked, finally. “There's just one dashed button ...” It was on the top of a metal box that should have been accessible, but a spinning handle kept whooshing past it and so far he hadn't found the correct timing to push the button. Meanwhile the green dot on the screen wavered lazily in no pattern and the honey had developed a faint glow.

The bee was still buzzing, flying a looping course over the equipment, until it finally dropped onto the same metal box the Professor was leaning over. It wandered myopically across the surface on some bee mission. Both the handle and the man were too high up to worry it. When it got too near to the row of controls, he stopped stabbing his finger futilely towards them and it simply crawled up onto the crucial button, which slowly dropped into position.

“It's made the map again!” Belinda reported.

“Great Scott, did you see that?” the Professor muttered as he returned to the screen. “Let's have a look at this chap. I've not tried honey before.”

A neat profile of narrow peaks and corrugated lowlands was traced on the screen. He bent close and whispered to himself, following them with a gnarled finger, until the pattern disappeared suddenly back into the uncommitted doodling of the dot. The bee had flown off and the button popped up again. “Hmm! That really is it.” With a startling lurch and perfect timing, he pressed it furiously down. Then he – and Belinda, though she didn't really understand why – simply gaped at the screen.

The profile was different.

It had inverted itself, in fact. Where each hilltop had been was now a sharp valley, and each valley had become a wobbling raised plain.

“Sir, what's happened?” Belinda asked quietly.

“It certainly shouldn't behave like this,” he said. “Let me see ... here we have decadence; a peak for theft; this valley means cruelty, and this wiggle is for ingratitude. This is when I pressed that switch. But inverted, we would have ... community. Devoted service, here; we believe this peak might mean something akin to love. Cooperation. Hmm ...”

Footsteps from upstairs signalled that the children's parents had awoken. The Professor turned off the motor and unplugged several things from the extension cord. He had begun to move very slowly, his head nodding in front of him with faraway eyes. “My dear. I must just stand very still for a while and think on this,” he said. “You may divide this rather singed honey between you, if you wish. Please apologise to your parents for me; I shall not be long.”

Belinda did not fancy it much now but the boys fell on it gleefully.

“What on earth is all this?” Her father stood at the door, staring at the cluttered kitchen. “Is that the pantry door? Has Professor Grey put you up to all this?”

“It's, um, an experiment, Dad,” she tried to explain. “The Professor was just showing us with the honey. It's a frequency map machine.”

“Frequency map? And what exactly is the frequency of honey, then?” he asked roughly.

“It appears to depend,” the Professor said quietly, “on whether you're a bee or a human being.”