Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
All Offers Considered, Part Two
"Why are we sending this crap out again?" the stock foreman pushed his hat back and wiped a grimy arm over his sweaty forehead. It was unbelievable what they were dealing with. Every conceivable good and raw material, and if it wasn't a raw material somebody had to go through every item and remove every trademark and origin mark. Boring, tedious work, made all the more wretched by having to perform it on thousands of items many of which had to be pulled apart. One day he had gone to help out the cleaners who prepped the items for their final packing. He had been handed a pair of shoes, scissors, a seam ripper, a linoleum cutter, a tube of heavy duty glue, and a soapy cloth. Nearly two hours later, he had finally excised every piece of information. The work with the linoleum cutter was the worst, because it was the only way to carve the brand names out of the soles of the shoes, and the work had to be done carefully. Another cleaner filled in the blank spaces with fresh plastic from a bucket, and after another half hour the shoes could be packed again, minus their original box, of course.
"Because it's all been paid for, Max." Regan sighed. This foreman was coming to the end of his tenure, he asked the same pointless questions too often.
"With worthless money! Why do we do it, why do we make all this effort to meet their demands for purity or whatever it is?" Max insisted.
"Yes Max, the money is worthless to us. The money isn't what they paid with. And the reason we do it is because if we didn't, those poor people would starve to death. By now nobody who lives there knows anything else, and they never made the original decision to live there. They don't deserve to die for what they don't know and never chose." Regan flipped through the cargo manifest. Not that the ones who didn't flee the place weren't dying off anyway. The orders were smaller every year, now by quite significant amounts.
"If they're so worried about purity why don't they make their own crap?" insisted Max. Yes, he probably had a week more in him at best.
"Because manual labour is impure, by their lights. Look, Max, don't worry about it, focus on getting the last shipment of the day out. Then we'll be done for another couple of weeks, and I'll see about getting you transferred." Setting aside the manifest, Regan pulled on her gloves and settled her hardhat on her head. It was time to start loading cargo.
Loading itself was like a dance, Regan reflected as she hooked up a pallet to the crane and gave the thumbs up to the operator. Stepping back smoothly, just four steps, stop, turn, receive the next pallet on the conveyor belt. Seal the sides, one stamp to the front, one on top, burn in the catches holding the top on. Catch the grappling hook, start again. Nevertheless, she wasn't going to miss it. She appreciated the opportunity to gather data from this strange arrangement for two years, and the truth was Regan would never have to do original research again courtesy of how much information she was getting. Alas, the sheer tedium of it made it hard to keep the appreciation in mind. The car was full.
"Hey boss?" Asok waved at her. He had started about three months ago, and still laughed and joked with everyone. In fact, he had already been fondly nicknamed "the awesome morale guy."
"What do you need Asok?" Boosting a hip up on a pallet waiting for its top seals, Regan pulled a dirty handkerchief out of one pocket of her cargo pants and wiped at the back of her neck, wincing when she discovered sunburn.
"I have to ask do you have any idea what religion these people are? We do so much work according to this huge list of rules," Asok clambered up beside Regan, pulling a notebook out of his pocket. "there's no religious system in the records I can get my hands on that match it."
"Probably because it wasn't exactly a religion." Regan fished a packet of pastilles out of a different packet, offering them to Asok, who shook his head. "I'm telling you Asok, your muscles would hurt less if you ate these. You're right, they suck tastewise, but they're the best electrolite boosters I know." Taking a pull from a bottle of water from yet another pocket, Regan swished the pastille around for a few moments before tucking it in her cheek and speaking again.
"The records about the city itself are a bit more forthcoming. Its founders believed the troubles of the world came from just one thing: pollution. A perfect world was a clean world, a world divorced from the physical, which is polluted."
"So they dug a big hole in the ground and hid in it?"
"Er, no. Asok, where did you hear about a hole in the ground?"
"Anybody who flies over these parts sees where the train goes, boss. The anti-aircraft batteries stopped working years ago." Asok frowned at a hole in one of his boots. "I probably shouldn't have mentioned it."
"Relax. I'm a smuggler too." Regan drawled, taking another swig of water. "No drugs I'm venal, not evil." And she preferred to pay the bills without killing people.
"How'd you know?" intrigued, Asok peered at her more closely than usual.
"You're too interested and happy to be here, Asok. But listen, this is a dead gig. I don't know what's happening to the people in that city, but whatever it is, it's eating them up. See this train?" Asok nodded. "Kid, that train used to be ten times longer, and eight more just like it used to head out every day. Now its three, sometimes four, every three weeks and only this many cars."
"Kid!" Asok snorted. He was younger than Regan though.
"You ever talked to the folks who make it out? Seen one of 'em, even?"
"No, have you?" Asok asked eagerly. He had no idea what had made the boss so chatty today, and who was he to complain?
"Sure. Lots of times. Lots of times." Regan's voice faded away, her expression becoming distant. Yes, lots of times. And hardly a word had she ever exchanged with any one of them, too unnerved by their reactions to the open sky and the way the ground was covered in forbs, grasses, and stands of trees for as far as the eye could see. Until the day one of them had come over to talk to her. Which had been a pretty special day, actually.
"Back at it, Asok." Hopping off the pallet, Regan tied her tattered handkerchief around her neck to keep her sunburn from getting worse, took a final swig of water, and strode off to the conveyor belt. Shaking his head ruefully, Asok followed suit.
Catching the next pallet, Regan considered whether to tell Asok anything else. Nah, it'd be better for him to learn on his own, if he learnt anything. He'd never believe her anyway, if she told him the truth: every person who left the city was a woman. All darker-skinned, usually of middling height, speaking a language both unintelligible and recognizable as an offshoot from one spoken on the fringes of a now much changed continent.
Watching the last pallet slot into place, Regan caught the respirator Asok threw her and began putting it on. Loading the tanker cars was dusty work at the best of times, and today it would be caustic and dusty. Adding a protective hood and gloves, Regan blew through the respirator hose to check the pressure and considered the people who came straggling along the tracks, fleeing their perfect city. She chewed her lip, pondering how it wasn't quite true, her generalization about the women. A man had shown up once, pale-skinned, small, slender, the epitome of "troglodyte" Regan figured, with his blinking, squinting eyes even though it was night and a bare half Moon. He caught a cold a few days after reaching the station even though nobody else seemed to have one, and died soon afterwards. Strange stuff.
The trolley car rattled peaceably on its way, until the driver guided it to its usual stop just by the sixth platform berth. The sixth platform berth was the least truncated of what had originally been a giant cargo moving hub. Only one complete platform remained, where the mysterious train to nowhere stopped for its load of denatured old consumer goods and raw materials. The sixth berth had a long ladder running from its edge to the ground beside the trolley stop, bolted incongruously to the raw edge of the concrete. Regan paused, looking back along the sixth berth, trying to visualize what it must have looked like, before work crews cannibalized the rest of its concrete segments, yanking them apart at their rubber-filled seams. Feeling stymied by the stubs around her, she began clambering down the ladder, both her least favourite and most favourite activity of the day. Least because clambering along the ladder made her nervous of the sky. "Bolts from the blue" were common in these parts, especially around taller metal structures.
The trolley driver waved at her, and Regan smiled back, shifting her tool bag onto one shoulder so she could slip through the narrow trolley doors. Settling herself on one of the cracked vinyl seats, she tucked her tool bag behind her legs and leaned back. A bare few minutes after the driver restarted the trolley and headed out, Regan was sound asleep.
She woke up just as the driver took the last corner before her stop, one of many in a tent city sprung up for one purpose and one alone: to service the cargo train. Here was the underground city's insubstantial shadow, soon to wink out. The specificity of the city's orders had become legendary, idiomatic. "Go to the city!" a trader faced with an order too detailed and rigid to meet would shout at the person trying to make it. Here in that city's shadow, a dwindling assembly of salvaged shipping containers arranged in a semi-circle, small ends to the centre, marked the outer edge of the tent-filled blocks. Children played in between the containers, playing hide and seek or making up games around the nonsense syllables emblazoned on the tall metal boxes, where rust or barnacles allowed. When the old economies finally ran out of world to eat, the city's orders could be filled in only one way: by finding lost and abandoned containers of goods. Regan had started her smuggling career in salvage and worked her way up. Now, now, she knew the container salvage game for what it was, the dissipating last gasp of the old economies.
Regan was a pragmatist, and so she had been cheerfully remaking herself into something officially respectable. A new job awaited her graduation from university, this time with a flashy doctorate, and more practical skills from the program than anybody would have believed a bare ten years before.
Tipping her head to one side, Regan listened for the tinkling bells marking metalworker's row on her left, even as the smell of the leatherworker's cooperative tickled her sinuses from the right. The sharp "thwop-thwop" sound of her heavy work boots drew attention in its own right, and Regan began the long series of nods and hellos required of a person as they walked home along the hard-packed paths. This being a tent city, unless it sounded like injury or murder being done, people made no comment or response to what they heard from neighbouring tents. The payback for discretion was the requirement to interact outside the tents. Finally waving off the last person with plenty to say and no inclination to help hold her heavy tool bag, Regan forced herself to walk at a swift but sedate pace to her home.
Home being more substantial than the usual canvas-sided, or heaven forbid, inflammable synthetic tents. Unlike so many others in the tent city, Regan came from this very place, and that meant she knew how to live in its hot, dry summers and long, bitter winters. She had the wherewithal to move to other places by season. It was still commonplace to call her people "pastoral nomads" which might have been accurate except that they didn't move around at random and didn't make a living by keeping herds of cattle or sheep. No, that wasn't their way, though they kept sheep certainly, otherwise they couldn't make the felt that went into their tents. Regan smiled as her own tent came into view, bright coloured and stocky with a domed top and pipe weights slipped into tubes of cloth at the bottom of each section. One of her favourite jobs from her childhood was filling the pipes with sand, and then emptying them out again when packing to leave.
Regan deftly flipped back the tent door and slipped inside, stopping in the annex just long enough to drop her tool bag, boots, and dusty outer jacket and hat in a convenient, if untidy pile. The inner door was made of two overlapping, lighter bodied carpets, so Regan slipped through them into the main living area, and seeing no one else home flopped shamelessly onto the low bed made up of carpets and cushions. For a few moments she revelled in being off of her feet and out of the heat, and was just thinking she should check the samovar before dropping off to sleep.
"Nà-síl, lì dah-ìt." answered Regan. "Wháteeím?"
"Late, the Sun is down." Temu smiled fondly and sat down beside her partner, inordinately pleased that Regan had answered in her own language when addressed in it. More often than not, especially if she had been deeply asleep, Regan would revert to her mother tongue with its five registers, and while Temu had learned it along with the common language of the tent city dwellers, she still found it difficult. "You work too hard, Regan."
"It's just for a little longer, Temu. Two more months." Regan sat up, and winced when her awkward position dragged her collar across her burned neck.
"You and your sun burned." sighed Temu, mock wagging a finger at her.
No one with any sense liked sunburn, but Regan had to admit to dearly loving its aftermath as Temu patiently smoothed a cool ointment over her injured skin. Her eyes drifted shut as her mind wandered to other pleasant things Temu's clever fingers could do. "Food first, and I think you should rest tonight."
"Oh must I?" Regan asked sadly. She wanted to argue, but she could feel the truth of Temu's words in the heavy weight of her limbs and the shoe-leather feel to her mouth. Picking up one of the waterskins hung around the tent, Regan took a long drink before hauling herself off the bed with an effort. "As for food, what did you want today? I..."
"Ttch." Stretching to her full height, a little taller than Regan, Temu squeezed her hand. "I picked up some food on the way from work today. The heat is too bad for cooking inside, and you too tired for cooking outside." They sat together cross-legged at the low folding table to share the food, exchanging bites. It was some time before Temu frowned into her lap, unconsciously flexing her powerful hands against the stiffness a day's tinbashing generated. "Love Regan," she began, reverting to the syntax of her mother tongue. Regan looked over at her in surprise, a chunk of stewed meat held in mid-air on the tip of her eating knife.
"It is not a matter for fear." Temu temporized, and was relieved when Regan relaxed and put the meat in her mouth. They had been together several years now, so Temu knew most of Regan's instinctive alarm had nothing to do with her. One day she knew, she would get her hands on the cause of Regan's reactions in these matters. On that day, Temu had a plan for exactly how she would carve that person limb from limb. "I understand why you wish two more months here, Regan. It is the last time. I know it. Yet I cannot bear it, to be here any longer in the shadow of that place."
"Oh, Temu, sweetheart why didn't you speak sooner? I swear I didn't know!" Setting down her eating knife, Regan turned herself so she could look into Temu's face. "Dúr-an?"
"Án-dúr!" Temu reassured her. "I did not expect to feel this way. Here we have been before, many times." Unfolding her legs, Temu looked along their length, trying not to meet her lover's intense gaze. The figurative gears ticking as Regan reassessed their recent interactions, trying to locate where she had missed the signs of her partner's discomfort were almost audible. "It is dying," Temu enunciated carefully, using the full verb forms her own language had lost. "the city dies, worse, the people die with it. I cannot stand to see it, see that the people stay there to die. Why do not they walk out all together, why do not they live?" she burst out in frustration, eyes filling with tears.
"If we have three more days of this, I won't be responsible for my actions." Penelope threw down her empty water bottle in disgust, and began rubbing desperately at her cramping legs. They had come a long way, or at least, it felt to them like they had. Pedalling along in the buggy was better than walking, maybe. The tires, treaded for paved streets not vegetation, made starting out terrible and stopping all too easy. Cursing, Penelope struggled to get up, evidently in somewhat of a panic.
"Penelope, Penelope, stop, stop, okay?" Tig caught the other woman by the shoulder and eased her back down. "Let me work on your legs. Do you know what's causing this? I'm damnably sore, not tormented by cramping and these bouts of tremors you're suffering." For a long time she worked over Penelope without her saying a word, kneading the knotted muscles until she felt them begin to relax. "Have you got something wrong with your legs?"
"No," when the answer finally came, Penelope's hoarse voice startled her. "it's not my legs, really. Old spinal cord injury, caught in a rockfall during my work term in the tunnels." She had perfected a gliding, careful walk most people interpreted as an expression of her native fussiness. She had perfected a lot of things.
"Here, roll over." Tig helped Penelope onto her back, then began gently pulling on first one of Penelope's legs, than the other, listening for the dull pop marking the last of the muscle tension releasing. "Now it becomes clear how you came to be a designate." It was no easy thing for a woman to become a designate, not least because designation was the worst possible punishment a person could suffer in the city. Death was considered by far the better option if available to a condemned individual. Nevertheless, women were very nearly immune to it, and men could find themselves designated all too easily, especially if they didn't have much money. The reason for this differential was lost in time. "How did you get caught?"
"I didn't get caught, exactly." Penelope answered, struggling into a sitting position again. Exhaustion plus the aftermath of the cramps and tremors made her legs feel like lead. "The truth is, the city authorities have bigger fish to fry than students trying to distribute illegal literature by computer that's what I was officially charged with."
"That sort of thing could be socially disruptive. Social disruption would be difficult to manage, cooped up in the city." Tig commented.
"Yes, but when we didn't know or imagine anything else the city was simply the whole world, and it wasn't small. At least, not small in the way it feels small now. If you had told me two days ago it was some kind of underground installation, I would have laughed at you."
Tig stared at Penelope in disbelief. "Then you..."
"Didn't think there was really an outside? Yes. I figured, especially since I didn't get into smuggling until after being designated, that it was actually a game, a false front of some sort. And so were all the stories of the founders. Something the authorities created to keep malcontents like me busy indoors." Focussing, Penelope began carefully flexing each foot, doing it again and again until the feeling came back in the toes where it could. "I got designated for having a child without a husband."
For a long time, Tig sat in silence. She had no idea what to say. What could she say that wouldn't be at minimum daft, at worst callous-sounding. What came out of her mouth surprised her. "Please tell me you got her away before they caught you."
"I did, barely." Penelope's face twisted into a grimace, this time because of remembered pain. "If it wasn't for her, I would have been a coward, and cut my ties to the slums for good. As it is, the authorities figured I would suffer more being designated, since I had won a scholarship to get out. They like to pick up the clever kids, when they can."
"Hang on," Tig's head was spinning. As soon as she thought she had figured out her strange friend at least a little, something new and disorienting came up. "haven't we left her behind?" Penelope's eerie, answering smile raised the hairs on her arms.
"No, of course not." Forcing her emotions back down, Penelope took a deep breath. "My relatives fled the city months ago, and she went with them. She's sixteen. Wanted to see the world, have a future. I don't know if I'll ever see her again. Still, it's better she takes her chances in the real world, not the city. She has them I think, out here, now I know it's real."
"Chances? Honestly I can't see how. We've seen no other people and no sign of other people, except that train. I'm worried about our supplies." Tig twisted her hands together, caught between relief and fury that Penelope had some sort of tether to this unfamiliar place, however tenuous, while she was floating in space.
"Tig," Penelope caught Tig's hands between her own, chafing them to warm them up. Her legs were still killing her, but the look of loss and misery in Tig's face was more than enough to get her hobbling again. "Our supply situation is frightening, not least because we don't know how far we have to go, and I haven't seen a water source yet either. But," She took a deep breath. "People load the trains. They're not too far away, the train travels for only a few hours before it reaches the city. Now we know I really was smuggling, not wrapped up in an absurd game. So what I heard about the train's travel time is real, just as the car with the smuggler's goods in it is." Penelope grinned. "You wouldn't believe what people are willing to buy as long as it's smuggled I swear, half the time the buyers don't even know what they're buying is for. It's just something weird and rare they can stick on the mantelpiece and brag about."
"You're right, I don't." chuckled Tig. "Shall we try to move on? There are trees, I think, up there. They must need more water than this other stuff." she patted the plants she was sitting on and among.
"Yes. I wish we didn't have to, but it's better to keep on until we've hit a camping site at least. The air smells funny, and those clouds are making me nervous. Even never having seen real ones, dark greyish clouds look a bit sinister."
Asok sighed in unutterable disgust. There were few things in the world that could dampen his spirits he had seen hard enough times to feel pretty good when he could be sure of food, water, shelter, and entertainment besides. Loading the train in a driving rainstorm fell among those few things. Storms were infrequent and spectacular, with lightning thrown across the sky in multi-coloured nets at intervals, followed all too quickly by the kind of thunder that made a person instinctively dive for the ground. Even in such a hideous storm, the train still came, and the train still needed to be loaded. In spite of himself, Asok began to tense up just thinking about it.
"What do you mean you're short today?" barked Regan. Nobody was in a good humour today courtesy of the impending storm, and Regan had the worst of humours of all, because she was in charge. When push came to shove, Asok didn't envy her even a little.
"I'm sorry boss, we are. The salvage teams did their best, there's just not much left out there anymore. Can't these people make any of their own goods? Does everything have to be made of plastic?" Grayson held out her hands in a pleading gesture. This day had been coming, the salvage teams returned after longer and longer periods with less and less. The crescent of corroded shipping containers shrank without ever recapturing its original growth, each emptied container being sent in its turn with the scrap metal collectors. The tent city got excellent trade for the metal, divided evenly among all its denizens. The trade was better with each empty container, another signal there were few left to find and this was a widely known fact.
"How much are we short?" Regan sighed. She'd have to report this in the assembly tonight.
"Four cars, maybe five." Grayson braced herself for her boss's wrath. The last thing she expected was the other woman's expression of dumbfounded shock.
"What? Three weeks ago we loaded that train solid!"
"Yes, we did. The salvage teams hadn't brought us anything new then either. Talk to Squiddy, he'll tell you, they can't find anything now. They've picked all the places clean: sea floor, old train yards, trashed factories, every accessible garbage dump. It's the same everywhere." Grayson turned and gestured to the east. "That way, they've finally got the cleaners working, pulling the particulate plastic out of the ocean. Squiddy was telling me, it's something awesome, these crazy machines, they're big tanks full of a sort of algae. They take the plastic globs and make it into film. Then they line the old factory floors with it and culture mushrooms on top."
"Can you eat them?" Regan asked flatly. This was not a day for a second hand Squiddy story. At the moment she would have preferred somebody to punch and a strong drink.
"No, no, wrong kind of mushroom for people, but lots of critters like them well enough." Realizing belatedly Regan was out of patience with Squiddy stories, Grayson returned to the main topic. "I'm sorry boss, if the city won't take any alternatives, it won't be long before the train goes back empty." And not long after that, the tent city would vanish away, leaving just a few dusty rings in its wake, those to be overwhelmed by the local vegetation in bare months.
"All right, Grayson. Nothing we can do about it, so best to get on." Regan glanced up at the sky. "Four less cars means it'll take us two less days to fill the train," Which meant, in the immediate term, there was a silver lining to this shocking day. Two months? More like two weeks, at this rate. "The hell with it, we're not loading shit in this weather."
"Only unloading, the way these storms sound like bombs falling on our heads." growled the new stock foreman, whose name was Wilm.
"Hey, hey, no puns here." Regan winced. Sometimes new people had embarrassing control problems during their first big rainstorm. She turned and marched out to the main loading area, where the rest of the crew waited, faces set in varying levels of grim as they braced themselves for the job ahead. Post-storm times were the worst when a loading was finished, because the shell-shocked loaders went straight to the bars to drink. It was a small mercy they were usually too exhausted to pick fights or worse.
"You can all relax. We're not gonna be able to fill the train anyway, so we may as well all head home and wait out the storm." Regan raised her voice over the cheering. "Asok, radio the tram and ask for an extra."
"You got it, boss!" crowed Asok.
From overhead, the tent city looked as if someone had randomly yanked up tents in handfuls. With the way the storm was brewing up over their heads, Levitt thought to herself wryly, there was a chance the storm itself might oblige. So far inland tornadoes were rare even in the worst storms, but this one was generating sheet lightning and the wind sheer had been sky rocketing for the past half hour. They had suffered enough damage that Levitt had been forced to bring them so low as to cast the formidable shadow of their vehicle on the ground, now slipping with alarming speed over the tent city itself. A crash landing wouldn't be necessary, but they'd have to use the emergency systems to drop their foils, and that meant an extra four days at least while they pulled out the severed rivets and redid them all again. Let alone all the work the fuselage was going to need. Levitt's headphones crackled, and she acknowledged the signal from tent city air control a single leggy teenager with good binoculars and not enough good sense to get the hell inside as the rain began to come down in a swirling sideways blast.
"Wells, get your ass up here if you don't want us to crash!" bellowed Levitt, struggling to keep the foil stabilizers level and the keel directed at the right angle. Wells appeared a moment later, looking green. Poor man. He far preferred what he called "real air ships." Levitt didn't blame him, though she found they felt too much like ships that sailed on water for her liking.
"Cargo and everybody is strapped down, Mikey is ready to pop the emergency parachutes if necessary." Wells grabbed the tail controls and ground his teeth with the effort of shifting the keel. "The idea of spinning around in this muck is giving me the horrors."
"You're not kidding." growled Levitt, trying to ignore the tremors of exhaustion beginning to run up her arms. "No chance cargo is going to fly around and clobber anyone? And no puking!"
"No at least, not without the wrong sort of luck." The wind eased briefly, and Wells chanced handling the controls one-handed to improve the angle of his viewfinder.
"Good," Levitt popped her microphone on and paged Mikey. "Mikey, get your scrawny ass the hell away from the parachute controls, in this storm all they'll do is get us all killed." Mikey's protests were so loud Wells could hear them. "Then I'll have Lug shoot you. He'd love that." Mikey hated Lug, and Lug hated Mikey. So Mikey got away from the parachute controls. "Move over to the emergency vertical boosters and strap in there. When you hear two clicks on your headset, fire them."
"They'll only burn for two minutes." They were descending in a wide arc as much against the wind as they dared, which amounted to not enough to seriously count. "How is that going to help us?"
"It's going to help us plenty. When we've reached regular descent altitude, we're popping the foils." The demented design of this flying machine actually made some sense. It wouldn't be pretty, but they'd still be able to glide in.
"This is such a bad idea." Wells groaned unhappily, but set his part of the foil release charges anyway. It was a bad idea. However, the other choice was giving up and crashing, a worse idea. "Do you really think the foil stubs are going to be big enough? Once the foils are gone we revert to being a heavier than air ship."
"In all honesty, no. My hope is the boosters will give us enough extra lift to get around that. We don't have much else to work with, this storm came up too fast on us for a regular landing." Levitt locked her viewfinder in place and tracked down the regular landing strip, an area on the opposite side of the tent city from the shipping containers. "The lower air bladders are still full, though. They weren't meant for air bags, but they'll have to do."
Wells nodded, and checked their pressure, shown on a gauge to his left so he didn't need to take his hands from the controls. "You ever seen a storm like this before?"
"Yes, but never so far inland. Might be a knock on effect from the typhoon that hit two days ago." Levitt glanced up, momentarily stunned by the rolling clouds visible through the overhead windows. "Time we dropped the foils, Wells."
"Gotcha." And Mikey where he sat, winched as tight to his seat as he could stand, heard the tell-tale two electromagnetic pops in his headphones. Shutting his eyes tight, he brought his thumb down on the vertical booster ignition.
"Well, that needs a tinbasher, that does."
"Are you kidding? It's an army of tinbashers needed on that!"
"Sure, but everybody walked out, and only minor injuries, isn't that something!"
"Yes, it is." Regan agreed, shaking her head in disbelief. The new airfoil ships were mocked by many, yet even the greatest doubters had to concede that their record for coming through a crash landing with at least their crews intact was phenomenal. Temu was out with the rest of her metal working compatriots, working to make sure the crew were all out and nothing would burn or blow up once the rain really set in. On the ground they were getting early, fat drops interspersed with hail.
"Light show upstairs is wonderful." in spite of the fearfulness of the situation, Temu couldn't repress her joy. The city never had such wonders in it, and she had learned to accept the closeness of wonder and fear.
"So it is," Regan agreed, smiling fondly at her partner, whose welding shield was pushed back from her face, one shaping mallet gripped in her left hand while the other was tucked in her belt. Temu held her other hand behind her back. "What are you hiding?"
"Nothing, nothing!" Temu laughed, dancing out of Regan's reach. They went on this way for some time, laughing like children and making the various witnesses, including the mostly lightly injured airship crew smile in their turn. Finally forced to leave off as they were out of breath and needed to get back to work, Temu relented. "It is for you." Then she pressed it into Regan's hand and dashed back to her colleagues, who were now working on drawing a heavy duty cover over the ship and pinning it down. Amazingly, the foils hadn't come down too far away, and these were visible in the middle distance as retrieval crews rushed to get them out of the storm.
There were still far too many smaller tents to take down before the storm hit, Regan knew. So she couldn't stand around like a lovestruck teenager, could she? Allowing herself a few more seconds, she threaded Temu's gift onto the kin chain she wore constantly as all of her people did, then tucked it away inside her shirt. Then she pulled on her work gloves and steeled herself to help more distressed people mostly out of harm's way. The smaller, synthetic material tents blew away in strong winds, when they were rechristened tent city tumbleweeds. This happened often enough that their occupants locked up their main gear into weighted strong boxes for the duration of their stay when it wasn't in use.
Levitt watched the two women move off in their separate directions after their impromptu game of tag, thankful for their distraction as the medic reset her arm. Six weeks before she could fly a kite, let alone any sort of air ship. Which might be just long enough to get the Dandelion back together. "Everybody's out, and ridiculously enough it looks like most of the cargo came through fine. All those plastic shoes cushioned the electronics." Wells threw up his hands in disbelief. "If anybody told me this story, I'd tell them to lay off the psychedelics."
"Plenty of that in the sky without taking any." they winced together as a booming crack went off above their heads, seemingly at the same time as branches of lightning shot across the bellies of the clouds. Mercifully, the medic had injected Levitt with a good dose of painkiller combined with muscle relaxant, so she barely jumped. "Any sign of a funnel?"
Peering out through the tent flap, Wells switched his binoculars to infrared. Funnels were always warmer than their surroundings, he thought. "Noo " he said finally. "Lot of debris blowing around, though. Maybe this'll be like what the oldtimers used to tell, when the storms were so big and travelled so far you could pick up crazy stuff from miles away after they were over."
"Hope not. Sounds awful." Levitt's voice slurred and her eyes drifted shut.
The rest of her crew were stretched out on various cots all on one side of what the tent dwellers called a cylinder hut. "Hut" struck Wells as a misnomer, as the thing was big enough to fit several small planes in it, and right now it was mostly full of people huddled around makeshift tables and camp stoves, temporarily displaced by the storm from their small tents. "What do you do if your tent blows away after all?" Wells asked a man from one of the groups closest to him. The man shrugged his shoulders.
"Check the round up of the tent city tumbleweeds next day, see if its there and salvageable." He paused, about to spit, then caught himself and spit carefully in a garbage can instead. "Had a tooth out, wouldn't want to step in that myself." he explained apologetically on noticing Wells' horrified expression. He did have a terrible bruise running along one side of his face, exemplary of some of the nastier injuries caused by flying debris. "If there's no salvage, just trade for something new. We can bunk up in here until we're sorted out again. It's not great, but not so bad, either."
Nodding sobrely, Wells checked Levitt was asleep, or at least stoned enough to seem like it, then went to find something to eat, relieved to feel like he could again. He couldn't understand how people could bear to live out here.
"It is moments like this that I have doubts about this big room." Tig declared firmly. They had wanted to camp in among the small stand of trees, close to the tiny creek that fed them. The oncoming distant flashes of lightning and the way the copse stood up like a finger with nothing comparable close put an end to that idea. So they had rigged up a lean-to against a nearby bare ridge, using the ridge overhang to anchor it on and the dry wall it provided as the rear wall. Having tied their two small tarps together, they stabilized them as much as they could by roofing them over with reeds from beside the creek and weighing down their edges with rocks. Then they set about putting up Tig's tent, which was the larger, arranging its door to face the rock face. They had listened to the wind pick up and the rain begin to fall with increasing dread, but Penelope's knowledge of physics had come in useful. It wasn't completely dry, warm, or comfortable. Yet they weren't in immediate grave danger, and that was something.
"Big room with big weather." Penelope sighed a little, and moved to shield their camp stove from the wind. They didn't have much to eat, though there was plenty of tea, so they were having tea. By now Tig had managed to stop leaping into Penelope's arms with each bomb-like report from the sky, so they were endeavouring to reinstate some semblance of their own version of normality. "Loudly as my laptop calls, I think it's better to save the battery for making heat at least until this storm has gone over." Straightening her shirt and drawing herself into an orderly, cross-legged position she added, "Luckily, I have several good paper books, my favourite smuggled acquisitions."
"Really?" Tig's eyes widened in surprise and delight. Like most people in the city, she had learned to read one of the officially banned outside languages long ago. It was the only way to make a modicum of sense of the instructions that came in the packaging of consumer goods, and the supply of contraband books at her university was wondrous. Some of them had quite a few pictures that seemed unrelated to the text, each one with their own captions saying successively more crazy things. She had never understood what was so exciting and important about a new batch of soap. At least, she thought that stuff was soap.
"Yes, philosophy and mathematics mostly, though. Oh, and the illegal city travel guide, which I have perversely been lugging along." Penelope pulled out the books, seven of them, making clear why she carried a carpet bag and why it was so heavy.
"Why these?" Tig flipped open one of the mathematics books, puzzling over the introduction for a few moments. "Oh, sets set theory? I had no idea you could take sets this far. You remember Higgins started to work on this and got arrested, then banned from teaching and all his notes destroyed?"
"Yes, I'm not at all sure what they have against set theory in the city. It seems very arbitrary." Feeling more in her element, Penelope found herself returning to the measured statements she had learned to prefer since being designated. "I brought these ones because to read them, it takes full concentration. Well, as opposed to the illegal travel guide."
"I understand. I think it's good you kept the travel guide, it'll remind us we haven't gone or just suddenly recovered from total insanity." Tig tipped her head to one side. "I mean, personal insanity, as opposed to the insanity of the city." She dragged her blankets more tightly around herself and inched closer to the stove. "Alas, it's going to be a cold night for us. We're probably doing as well as we are through dumb luck!"
"I won't turn my nose up at any sort of helpful luck we can get." Penelope untangled her legs carefully, and got to her feet, awkward as that was with such a low ceiling and painfully stiff legs. "I still feel a bit nervous about the creek swelling up with this rain." She had been witness to what happened when a branch sewer pipe got overwhelmed and burst, filling tunnels for several square kilometres with water and debris. Now she wondered where the excess water had come from.
Slipping out of the tent, Penelope stood up a bit more, allowing her head to push up the lean-to a bit. The cold sensation of water sheeting over it made her skin crawl, so she bent down again and crept towards their vehicle, parked in the low opening of the lean to. For a moment, Penelope felt oddly tempted to turn it around so its other side could be lashed by the rain in its turn, rinsing off plant debris and the grey-black dust and dirt from the area outside the city. In fact, now that she was accustomed to the air outside, Penelope realized the grey-black dust had an odd, petrochemical smell. "Then again," she murmured aloud, "petrochemicals do come from underground." Crouching as best she could behind the buggy, Penelope watched the rain shift in torrents, in the appearance of diaphanous sheets spinning slowly and then fast in midair, interrupted by bursts of hailstones.
"It'd be better than an ephemeral if we weren't trying not to be blown away and drowned in it." Tig commented ruefully. "I've poured the tea." She folded her hands into her armpits and stamped her feet. It was the damp bothering her, she knew.
"Tig, most of the time a solid poke in the eye with a sharp stick would be better than an ephemeral." Penelope paused, and winced as a new round of thunder began. "What do you think of the other books?"
"They're definitely interesting. One of them had clippings of some kind in it. Do you know what these are about?" Tig handed over what she had found, several irregular pieces of yellowing paper cut at neat right angles. One piece included an image of a four wheeled vehicle apparently floating in space, and both women could make out what seemed to be some sort of conversation written in short statements around it.
"My smuggling contacts told me the items like this were how products used to be announced to the public. They were supposed to provide prices and tell where you could buy them." Penelope held up the four wheeled vehicle clipping, and watched as a lightning flash made the print on the other side visible. "They laughed at these quite often, though I don't know why."
"So, these are prodnotes?" Tig shook her head in wonder. "They'd be burned on sight in the city for attempting to create a non-free market by means of psychological tricks!"
"For the free market is a terribly fragile thing, and to make it non-free is to pollute it, and " Now they intoned in mock unison, "the city must be clean!"
"Funny thing is, the newspapers had practically nothing but prodnotes in them. I always wondered what was actually happening. I mean, something must have been, there are so many people in the city." Turning over another of the clippings, this one including coloured sections of type and even an elaborate printed fish, Tig sighed. "Or at least, I always believed there were. Now I don't know. For all we know your smuggler friends smuggled people too, and there is no news for fear of letting on there is practically nobody left!"
"True enough." Penelope agreed. "I can't understand why or how such good ideas have gone so badly awry there."
"Are you so sure the ideas are good ones? Penelope, most of us in the city are prisoners, even the people who think they're in charge." The wind changed direction, and now even though the sky had lightened, the rain was now spraying in on them. "Come on, let's get away from this and have that tea."
Penelope strode briskly along, going over her list of items again in her mind. Only eight items, but all essential. She didn't want to forget any. The front door of the food store came into view, and she unconsciously ran her fingers over the two folded bills in her pocket. More than enough money, for never quite enough food.
The door seemed to leap up in front of her, leaving Penelope momentarily confused. She hardly seemed to have walked at all before she was standing in the warm air rushing through the automatic doors. Still bemused, Penelope walked inside, and made her way down the aisles, waving her coupon key in front of the sensor marking the front of each food case. She paused by the last case, wondering briefly if the cases were ever opened. Or if the food items she could see were real, for that matter. Giving herself a shake and dismissing such absurd thoughts, Penelope waved in her last item and gave the key a squeeze, activating its tiny piezoelectric light. After a moment a tinny, female-sounding voice declared, "Check-out Five."
Penelope began walking towards the counter the tinny voice directed, and stopped short in surprise. Extraordinarily, her selector key had remade itself into a big, old-fashioned flashlight in her hand. But as soon as she blinked, it reverted to its usual self. While she had been surprised, the surprise related less to the key performing such a transformation than it did to what it had transformed into. For her part, Penelope felt a carrying bag would be more useful than a flashlight. Slipping into line at Check-out Five, Penelope watched her manager float by holding a fistful of helium balloons. Even that didn't phase her. Then she realized she had no shoes on, at which point Penelope understood at last she was dreaming. "That's why it's so cold here." Penelope murmured. Food stores were usually far too hot, and very dry.
At last she got to the head of the line, and now she was there Penelope wondered what would happen next. The cashier stared in a dull, bored way at her, and waited silently. There was no need to speak because the total price of Penelope's eight items shone from a screen over the cashier's head. Penelope pulled out her two bills, and the cashier crinkled his nose in disgust. "I should have guessed you were a woman." he sneered. Penelope felt too puzzled to be offended. She was wearing one of her shirt and busty jacket power suits. Her breasts alone were a dead give away. "Only women are so low as to only be trusted with physical money." the cashier added unpleasantly.
Penelope stepped away from the cashier with her bag of groceries and change, watching silently as a man stepped up and waved a card over another reader by the cashier. The cashier said nothing to the man, and the man ignored the cashier, snatching his bag of groceries from the delivery chute and walking straight out the door of the shop. Penelope stumbled outside after him, carrying her own bag uncomfortably as it slipped awkwardly about in her arms, more like a sack of greased oranges than anything else.
"Usually my dreams make sense to me at least while I'm still asleep, but this is a complete muddle."
"Stop." a new mechanical voice droned behind her. Penelope sighed, and turned to face this block's pair of Black and Whites. "Identification." Forcing herself not to roll her eyes, Penelope held up her identification and permit cards. "Designate, type 4b. Where is your parole completion card?" Taking a slow deep breath and gritting her teeth, Penelope presented the card, this one unhelpfully made of a sort of thick paper that had to be carefully curated so its type wouldn't fade away and the paper itself disintegrate. Lamination rendered them invalid. A lost parole completion card meant a new sentence to the tunnel work crews, usually for life. "You may go."
Turning to go her way again, Penelope stopped short. She was dreaming, wasn't she? Well, she could do what she liked then, surely? Turning back to Black and White, Penelope tipped her head to one side. Suddenly stuffing her cards in her pockets, she darted forward and knocked solidly into White with one shoulder, knocking it sideways. The police robot toppled into its companion and both crashed to the ground, bursting apart in a rush of springs, gears, cogs, and interlocking blocks. Their usually somehow sinister faces now reduced to expressions of bemusement where they rested on the pile of nonsense parts Penelope knew never made up anything let alone a police robot. She reached out, poking at the side of one of the face plates. It fell over, revealing it as a sort of mask, with two empty eye holes, the usual grating over the mouth opening, and weirdly, cut out holes for the nostrils. Penelope picked it up and turned it over, jumping back in alarm when instead of a parti-coloured paint job, she saw the face of the cashier.
"Oh, well then, best to wake up any time now, I think." wiping her hands uncomfortably on her skirt, Penelope looked around. A rumbling sound made her look up, and suddenly she was back in the tunnels, fleeing for her life, fellow prisoners running all around her. There had been no warning. Laser sights and detectors were supposed to monitor continuously for rock falls, but it didn't take much to discover these items had been stripped of their batteries and were therefore useless. Each day the prisoners were required to set the useless devices up, because failure to do so meant demerits, and demerits meant more time in the tunnels.
Dust began to kick up around them, dust with the angry, acrid smell of spontaneously fractured rock. Penelope and three others tore around one last corner, and for a moment they thought maybe, just maybe, they had made it past the destabilized zone. Penelope saw a blue-white flash ahead where the fractures had moved faster than humans could run, and wondered at it. Then the ceiling began to fall, and for a time that couldn't be measured Penelope felt as if she were being carried along in a terrible, pounding sea of rock that finally hurled her against a wall and piled against her in a rush. She struggled to keep her head up, to keep the dust out of her mouth, to breathe. The dream had long ceased to be lucid, now it was a rerun of one of Penelope's worst nightmares.
"Penelope! Penelope!" Tig shouted, trying to keep out of range of her friend's flailing limbs. She feared her voice was being drowned by the renewed peals of thunder and the now driving wind which rattled the edges of the lean-to terribly.
"What? What is it? Stop, the rocks " Penelope gasped into silence, momentarily too disoriented by the noise, the cold, and flashes of lightning to make any sense of what she was experiencing now she was awake.
"It's okay, you were having a nightmare. It's hard to believe but this seems to be the last of the storm." Unnerved by Penelope's wild-eyed gaze, Tig hurriedly fished out their camp lantern again and turned it on, flooding the tent with golden light. Somehow the light made Tig feel instantly better, though still rattled, and she observed it had a positive effect on Penelope as well.
Flopping back on her bedroll, Penelope very nearly fell straight back to sleep. Jumping violently, she sat up again. "For a little while there I was under the false impression I could sleep through anything." she sighed.
"Actually, you were effectively doing just that until you started having a nightmare. I was watching you in disbelief, sleeping through round two of the thunder." They had huddled together for a long time, watching the flashes through the back of the tent and waiting in companionable silence for the thunder to end, since logically a storm with a start must also have a finish. It had been a disappointment to hear the rain keep falling after nearly a half hour, but they had opted to try to get some sleep while they could, laying out their bedrolls accordingly. Tig had woken with the first new rumblings, while Penelope had remained sound asleep. And Tig had hoped Penelope would stay asleep for the night, which she rarely did.
Ironically, it took only another hour or so for the storm to seemingly blow itself out although it was still cloudy, and by then Penelope had fallen asleep again half sitting up. With the dawn beginning to come up outside, Tig coaxed her friend into laying down again and tucked her in. Turning their lamp down to a cozy glow, she slipped out of the tent and then the lean-to to breathe some fresh air and watch the dawn come up. Tig couldn't imagine ever tiring of the extraordinary sight. She had learned about the solar system in school like everyone else, about the Sun and the Moon, the stars, and how the founders had managed to clean those blemishes from the sky. Yet having seen the real things at last now, Tig couldn't fathom how anyone could consider any of these blemishes. Especially once she saw the Moon seemed to change shape, and then realized she could still see a gleaming, thin arc along the edge of where the rest of it should be. "Dear god, that's a shadow on the Moon!" she had blurted in wonderment. The idea of shadows in the sky had struck her silent for hours, long enough for her to have to reassure Penelope she wasn't upset or angry.
At last the Sun began to slip over the horizon, like a great orange-red apple peeking stubbornly through a gap in the angry clouds, and Tig roused herself to check on Penelope and turn off the lamp. They wouldn't be moving on until tomorrow.
Considering they had just experienced one of the worst storms ever recorded since the central clocks were turned off, the tent city and its occupants were in excellent shape. The number of tent city tumbleweeds was minimal, and only around ten or twelve larger tents had collapsed, which was simply amazing. Children were busy splashing in puddles or sailing little paper boats in them as adults bustled about clearing debris and making repairs. Many of the older children were busy with brooms, pushing water out of tents and compacted areas onto the narrow trails throughout the tent city. In their turn, the trails were streaming somewhat unsteadily until they ran out into the vegetation.
Temu smiled at the sound of the older children just outside, who had lost focus on their work and were having a rambling game of tag instead. For her part, she had no desire to get up from her comfortable position curled up in Regan's arms. Thankfully she didn't have to, nor did her partner. They had been working for three days straight, until finally it was resolved in council that whoever had been working that long more than deserved a rest. So here they were still, though it was broad daylight. Regan lay bonelessly asleep, worn out from going to load the train straight after storm detail. The storm had lasted three days, longer than expected. They had experienced a brilliant dawn only to have the storm fall on them again a few hours later. The train was entirely automated, and would leave on schedule whether anyone had loaded it or not. In the end, Regan and her crew rushed to load what there was to load, kicking shut the last two doors even as the train began pulling smoothly out of the station. For her part, Temu had a nagging feeling the train would stop coming before the stockpiles of raw materials for the orders ran out. The orders always prioritized finished goods.
Tugging the blankets down a bit tighter against the cool air the brazier was burning low and in another hour or so Temu would get up to add more fuel Temu pondered the state of the Dandelion.
The Dandelion was a remarkable ship, even to the people who grudgingly sniped it was neither fish nor fowl, neither airship nor airplane. This was quite true. By rights the air foil concept should never have worked, and indeed, based on the limits of what was known barely three hundred years ago, no one would have thought of it anyway. The known laws of physics would inevitably have closed a potential inventor's mind to it. When it turned out there were a few more physical laws left to find, especially when it came to plasma fields, for awhile it looked like the central clocks might be turned on again. There were still hold outs from Centralized Time, people who hadn't fled to isolated places like the city. They had been quick to insist the new knowledge could only be developed and exploited by using the sorts of social organizations they had preserved, just as they had kept counting Centralized Time. For awhile, it looked like the hold outs would get their way, except for one thing. They couldn't stop talking about how much better Centralized Time was, and how much better society was going to be again, once they were back in charge. Then they began to talk all about what they would do when they were in charge, wild visions involving a lot of "imposing order by any means necessary." Pretty soon, the hold outs were back on their own and firmly locked out of the discussion of what to do with the new physics.
Temu had been patiently teasing information about the Dandelion from the cellnet, and the mysterious woman inventor who had designed and built its prototype. Based on what she had found so far, Temu surmised that this inventor would have been a designate in the city, if she was very, very lucky. An inventor so eccentric as to live in a house full of paper books, building useful machinery out of junk to trade and feed her four children. It wasn't quite clear where the woman had trained as a physicist or engineer, or both. At least, it wasn't clear to Temu. She had a list of questions about universities and the like now nearly as long as her arm to grill Regan with. With her own role and place in the world Outside stabilized, Temu no longer simply accepted the new things she saw and the new people she met. She wanted to know how they went together, to understand how a world without Centralized Time worked. Most of all, she wanted to know how the Dandelion worked. No, she laughed to herself. Most of all, Temu wanted to build another ship like the Dandelion. Then she and Regan could see the world, minus sheep. Temu's eyelids began to droop. Yes, travel without herds of ba-ahing sheep would be a plus.
It was all very well to dream of building another Dandelion, when the existing Dandelion needed so much work to get it flying again. All of the containment hydraulics needed to be tested for cracks and leaks, and if the right materials weren't available in the tent city to produce replacement polyfibre tubing, some of Levitt's crew would have the unenviable job of travelling to the nearest perma-city to trade for some. Luckily most of the Dandelion's cargo had been destined for filling the infamous train, so some repairs could wait, especially the cabin pressurizing system since it wouldn't be necessary to fly as high or as fast. The other big issue was the air bladders. They hadn't burst or been especially damaged in the crash, but the stop valves that controlled the gas flow in and out of them were little more than shrapnel embedded in the bulkheads now. Temu and a colleague were busy forging new ones, a task of at least a couple of weeks duration. Unbelievably, the foils had almost no damage at all, even their plasma nets and cylinders were intact.
The plasma nets and cylinders were an important part of Temu's mild obsession with building another Dandelion. She had gone to have a look at them, never expecting what she would experience on throwing back a part of the cover sheltering them from weather and debris.
For one thing, they were warm. Not too warm, just enough to be startling and to prevent much condensation on them. For another, they glowed gently with a yellowish-green light that reminded Temu insistently of the pictures she had seen of the deciduous forests to the south. The real surprise came when she grasped the edge of one of the plasma nets, intending to straighten it for a better view. She expected the edge to feel something like the warm water hoses strung between the heating tanks and the bathing tents, not something that felt uncannily alive.
Temu's startled exclamation brought other people running, including Levitt, who should have been in bed. Levitt had explained the basics of the plasma system, the way it generated heat even when relatively quiescent, that it had a pulse. Her explanation of the pulse in the net included a stroking of the foils so sensual looking to Temu she had blushed to the roots of her hair. Levitt had laughed good-naturedly at her discomfort, and launched into a sort of summary of the new design philosophies based on haptic feedback. "Real haptic feedback, not shiny surfaces meant to make your fingerprints look as oily and disgusting as possible!"
In the city, Temu had lived in what was considered "the best sort of home." It was highly automated, and almost every surface was a shiny touchscreen. Instead of hanging or placing objects of art or painting the walls or anything like that, the walls were literally giant monitors, each one set to a different appearance via a computer program. Even the floors were shiny, made of reinforced fibreglass. All the furniture was resin-coated and angular. The end result of all this smooth shininess for Temu was endless days of polishing with cloths and spray. Her husband's response to stray fingerprints and footprints eventually became so unhinged in its intensity that one day Temu had begun studying how to crash the front door. The windows didn't open or have curtains because their tint changed automatically with the light level and the time. Thankfully, Temu figured out how to crash the front door within a couple of weeks, fleeing into the night as it stood wedged half-open until its computer restarted and it shut. Despite her hurry to escape, Temu had taken no chances. She wiped her fingerprints off the door's keypad before taking to her heels.
Desperation made Temu fearless and strong, so when she encountered a pair of Black and Whites, instead of freezing and reaching for her identification cards, she had put down one shoulder and run straight into Black. Black obliged by falling over into White, knocking them both down into the street. For her part, Temu picked herself up from bouncing away from her victims, and tore off into another block. She knew she had to get off the street. Looking around at the endless houses, all closed tight, knowing the Black and Whites were more numerous and had more frequent patrol cycles in this higher status neighbourhood, Temu half expected to dissolve in panic. Instead, she discovered a steely core in herself she never expected, to go with the daring she had no words for. With no time to lose, Temu ran towards the one possible shelter available, a bridge arcing over a chasm that served as the border between the higher status neighbourhoods and the rings of lower grade neighbourhoods further out.
In the shelter of one of the bridge footings, Temu found a manhole cover. Such things were unheard of where she had just come from, so Temu couldn't guess what it was for. It had handles to lift it by, and she could feel warm air flowing through its grating, so she didn't need to guess about it being possible to lift it. That was how Temu came to disappear into the extensive tunnel system of the city, and eventually disappear from the city all together.
"Tomorrow" turned out to be nearly four days later. Penelope hobbled around carefully in what was finally a dawn the clouds wouldn't blow closed over. She wasn't nearly as stiff and sore as she expected. Looking over herself, she sighed. To her own eyes, Penelope was rumpled, a bit stained with sweat and the past few humid days, and generally askew from sleeping mostly in her clothes against the bitter cold of the long storm. Unbeknownst to her, Tig watched Penelope in her patient pacing. To Tig, Penelope seemed almost as immaculate as ever, and she found herself astonished by Penelope's ability to patiently disentangle the difficult muscles of her legs and lower back after a night asleep on the ground. Giving herself a shake, Tig returned her attention to her own task, packing up the rest of their gear. Their food situation was grave now, between working so hard physically and their recent struggles with the cold. Some of the plants and trees looked promising, but since neither she nor Penelope had knowledge of plants beyond the twenty-four permitted ones in the city, they didn't dare risk poisoning themselves.
"You know, most poisonous things are quite helpful in small doses." Tig commented while inspecting a mushroom not long after they had gotten up, overjoyed to see no clouds in the sky.
"Tig, I am under the impression that you've never met a chemical you didn't like, especially the psychoactive ones." Penelope replied drily. It turned out that Tig had a number of chemicals secreted about her duffel bag, several of which she declared were wonderful hallucinogens. Still, she hadn't said much about them, barring references to her unusual level of education in chemistry, until the beginning of day three of the storm.
On that day Tig was finally so exhausted from sleeping badly that she had all but pounced on her gear and pulled out the vial with a whitish powder in it. Struggling to focus her bloodshot, burning eyes, she was forced to hand it to Penelope. "Please put as much of that as would just about cover your little fingernail in my cup." she had requested. More than a little alarmed, Penelope had done as she was asked, and watched in silence while Tig filled the cup half full of water and swirled it around to dissolve the powder. "No I'm not poisoning myself, or intoxicating myself." Tig smiled ruefully. "Though heaven knows, I have an injectable chemical that would make me feel just lovely except it's too dangerous and best used for starting fires, in general." She glanced into her cup and swirled it again, then realizing Penelope didn't seem to be breathing, glanced up. As if this somehow gave Penelope permission to breathe let alone speak, she blurted:
"You've injected an inflammable chemical into your body?!" the poor engineer had turned white to the lips. By good fortune the low tarp roof kept her sitting down, so there was no chance of her falling down in a faint.
"Well, not exactly, I was exaggerating a bit. The chemical I have in mind doesn't work like that without a catalyst," this answer was not helping, "Penelope please, I do know how to handle the chemicals in my bag appropriately. This one is an ordinary sleeping powder from the pharmacy." Tig drank it off and set the cup down with a sigh.
"The teachings about polluting the body with chemicals in the city are pretty much the only ones I agree with." Penelope said, her expression sobre. The half light drew weak reflections from Tig's cup, where Penelope could see the faint dregs of the sleeping draught. "How can this be an ordinary sleeping powder if you can only take such a small amount of it?"
"We'll have to discuss the teachings about chemicals later," Tig had already sprawled out in her bedroll, eyes shut. "I refined the fillers out of the powder as it is sold in the pharmacy. There's only so much room in the duffle. No room, for fillers..." Whatever else Tig may have said vanished in a murmur as she dozed off.
"It's today or never, I think. Tig?" Penelope stopped speaking, waiting for Tig's attention to return to the present. Sometimes she found Tig's tendency to turn her mind to completely different topics whenever they stopped conversing quite frustrating. Not so much today, when it was such a relief to get moving again, and to see Tig looking better rested after a real night's sleep without resorting to sleeping powder or any of Penelope's most thoroughly illegal alcohol. Or at least, illegal in the city. Tig had startled her by remembering what Penelope had said about the chemical teachings, and then teased her mercilessly about the bottle of whisky.
"Or never?" Tig asked in a puzzled tone.
"Yes. Do you think we could get much further after we run out of food?" Penelope frowned worriedly into the distance.
"We'd probably get farther then we imagine. Think about it Penelope, we've spent our whole lives until not too long ago inside extraordinary limits. We've been taught we can't do so much, and we've already proved a thousand of those can'ts to be nonsense." Noticing Penelope's body language getting stiffer, Tig winced. "In any case, now the prevailing wind has changed direction, I've been smelling smoke for the past hour or two."
"Bollocks." Penelope snapped rudely. She hadn't noticed any such thing.
"Spoken like a true tower dweller." Tig beamed, not at all offended by Penelope's tone. "If it's any consolation, I know what smoke smells like at all because I burned and blew up things at the lab." Penelope wasn't consoled, which meant they began pedalling on in an uncomfortable silence.
The silence was awkward, but Tig decided to make the best of it by trying to puzzle her curiously volatile companion out. She tended to be quite phlegmatic herself, readjusting to the racket and cold of the storm fairly quickly, though the thunder retained its ability to make her jump at times. Penelope had finally been forced to pull out her bottle of whisky, which was actually a repurposed fuel flask. Fuel flasks were among the most coveted of items in the slums, alcohol storage being one of their minor uses. Tig had watched Penelope pour herself "two fingers" as she called it in her cup and down it in a gulp.
"You're thinking too hard." Penelope stopped pedalling and glanced over at the other woman, who had been thinking hard enough to forget to pedal.
"Hmm? Oh, sorry. Working on a puzzle." Tig gave herself a shake, sat up, and reseated her feet on the pedals on her side.
"No, it's all right. That was rude of me earlier. Between this storm and not being able to tell what is going to happen let alone when it's going to happen is driving me round the bend."
"We're Outside, Penelope." Tig shifted in her seat. "The what and the when is partly what we make it now."
"That's just it," Penelope burst out. "we have to make it make decisions! Decisions on very little data, I might add." She folded her arms and huffed.
"I concede making real decisions is an important change. But did we really have any more information in the city?" Tig leaned back and stretched her arms. "It seems to me what we had was the appearance of knowledge as opposed to real information."
"Hmmph." The horizon still seemed to stretch away endlessly, slightly broken only by the railroad tracks on their left and the silvery line of the stream growing up gradually into a river as they moved further from the city. There was no sign of any towers or houses, or roads, or anything Penelope associated with a settlement. She still couldn't smell anything different from what she had smelled since leaving the city, which to her had become more an absence of the familiar smells of plastics and an undertone that always reminded her of upholstery. "Well, best to go on and get some more real information I suppose. There must be more than this."
The train loomed over them, waiting silently as always. Regan peered at it, trying to find any trace of an information screen, a computer behind a panel with a keyboard, anything. Frustrated, she climbed up the gantry and scaffolding the loading cranes pivoted on until she was close enough to rap her knuckles on the side of the lead car. Just to be bloody minded, rap her knuckles on the metallic surface she did, avoiding the heads of rivets. The resulting noise was utterly unsatisfying, and didn't answer the key question: what were they going to do now?
The order had come in that morning, chattering through the teletype line as it had for years now. An adjusted order, one sent earlier than usual, marked "URGENT." Or at least, Regan figured this was the most likely meaning of "OORT" considering the sorts of goods the order listed. No raw materials at all, strangely enough. Instead, huge numbers of a wide range of manufactured goods in forms that even for the few items still made simply didn't exist anymore. Forms dependent on rare metals tapped out even before the central clocks were turned off. Then there were the various manufactured items listed which no one recognized. The loading team had gone over these puzzlers together, to no avail. Regan had climbed down into the deepest areas under the platform complex and dragged out the oldest word look up tables, and even these were no help. The words were so much nonsense.
So Regan had called in a couple of favours and arranged for Squiddy to doublecheck the old teletype. The mysterious items were scattered among recognizable ones, strongly indicating the signal hadn't been garbled or corrupted and didn't seem to correspond to shoddy typing. Still, Regan wanted every base covered before she finally sat down at the battered old desk in the former stationmaster's office, pulled out the red-edged paper, and wrote the messages announcing the end of the tent city. Squiddy confirmed the equipment was fine, and the order had come in clear as a bell or at least, clear as a bell if someone in the city were to read it.
The whole loading crew and even the four tram drivers were standing in a semi-circle at the bottom of the scaffolding, watching Regan. "What's she going to do? Punch a hole in it?" A round of chuckles answered the question. "I think," Asok commented quietly, "we should find some light coloured paint."
An hour or so later, not only had they found light coloured paint, stuff they found in the storage rooms under the station. They had also rearranged the scaffolding. "Okay folks," Regan said gravely. "We've got just one job left to do here related to this train. We need to paint this phrase on every car, or at least until we run out of this paint." She paused to put on her spectacles, took a deep breath, and read out as clearly and carefully as she could the words Temu had written down for her. "Dís dréd vyèdò-nè."
"Lots of dropping tones. Sounds bad." Wilm the foreman said.
"I'm afraid there's no good way to say the store's empty. Come on, let's get to work." Regan waved the crew on, planting her hard hat on her head and wincing at the Sun. Cold as it was, sunburn laid in wait for the unwary and unprepared. Alas, she had forgotten sunscreen again, and her bandana too.
The task took most of the day, and at its end the whole crew stood together on the scaffolding, inured by their time on the job to its gentle swaying. The drying letters, painted in what work with a few of the older dictionaries revealed was "Egyptian linen colour" looked strange indeed. The script used by the city was actually quite beautiful in its austere way. Only eighteen distinct symbols plus marks for four tones, according to the look up tables. The tone marks were dashes basically, and the symbols starkly simplified combinations of no more than four strokes.
A faint humming became audible to the watchers. Then they heard it: the tell-tale, clockwork-like sound of each wheel brake switching out, the revving whirr as the train engines geared up. Then the sound of hot air whooshing out of the exhaust vents, followed by the acrid smell of the exhaust itself. Regan grimaced in disgust as yellowish dark grey smoke spilled out of the train. She knew from Temu's account that the city dwellers were obsessed with cleanliness. Somehow the obsession extended no further than their own city. Their train ran on a filthy hydrocarbon fuel not every hydrocarbon fuel was filthy, but this stuff was and the train itself didn't leave the city empty. When it arrived, the first task of the loading crew was actually unloading. Freight cars filled to near overflowing with garbage, the tanker cars full of what could only be human waste. Nothing in the old shipping agreement gave the city permission to pay with its waste. It was absurd good fortune that after the first two hundred years or so, ways to process and make use of the vast majority of the city's garbage had been worked out. Except of course, for the human waste, which was piped into the sewage lagoon just out of sight of the train platform.
"I'm so not going to miss your garbage and your shit." Regan said aloud, as the train began to pull away. "Though I suppose you'll keep trying to send it, at least for awhile."
The train moved on, now surprisingly quiet, its progress smooth and fast. Fast, yet still just slow enough it was hard to resist the feeling it was possible to put out a hand and press gently to stop it. Regan had watched a new crew member try to touch the moving train with just that purpose. The look of shock on the man's face when his hand collided with a barrier was quite funny. "Thank the new physics you still have your arm." Regan told him, then went through the safety checklist with him, twice, slowly, in excruciating detail until the poor man was sweating bullets. There was quite a bit the new physics couldn't save a careless person from.
Then the train was gone. Regan stared after its wake, an odd feeling of expectation growing at the nape of her neck. But that was foolish, wasn't it? She thought. It had to be a reaction to how anticlimactic the departure of the last train had been. Ridiculous. Her thoughts were sensible. Somehow she couldn't tear her eyes away from where she was looking anyway.
"Boss? What is it?" Asok asked. In the end, the job of pestering the boss with questions always seemed to fall to him.
"I don't well, I'll be damned! There's somebody coming on some crazy wheeled contraption!" Yanking a pair of folding binoculars from her pocket, Regan adjusted them and peered down the tracks, leaning forward so far Asok leapt forward for fear she would pitch off the platform. The safety barrier switched off as soon as the train completely cleared the station, which meant his boss was leaning into the wind a long fall from the ground with nothing to keep her on the platform but gravity and bloody-mindedness, and he liked her too much to let her fall. "Two of them, women from the city, no question. They must be hungry and exhausted. Squiddy, we're going to need an interpreter."
"I'm going, be back in a jiff." Squiddy answered over his shoulder as he ran down the platform. His ride was a two-person hovercraft, so his round trip would be far quicker than the rattling old trolley cars.
"Come on you lot, get a move on! We need to get ready for these two people, they'll be cold, tired, hungry, and stressed. We can hardly receive them in our grubbiest clothes and the place a shambles!" thundered Regan, going into full parade marshal mode. Everyone from the tent city knew about the city's weird fear of dirt and untidiness, and they were compassionate enough to not want to make the transition of those leaving it anymore difficult than it already was if they could. People began running in all directions, and soon the apparent chaos resolved into groups of two and three efficiently cleaning and tidying away the debris from the work with the train. The crane operators worked separately to disassemble the cranes and scaffolding, the last time they would perform the task. Asok and two companions laboriously cranked up the large fans used to circulate the air inside the station, nowadays not usually necessary due to the sails used to direct the wind through instead. However, if the need to vent smells or fumes came up, the fans were always kept ready to go.
Regan worked briskly inside the stationmaster's office, first putting everything in order and dusting a bit. Then nipping into the adjoining bathroom, where she grabbed a shower and changed her clothes. This time, instead of bagging her work clothes for sterilizing and cleaning at home, Regan threw them into the sterilizing unit in the washroom. By the time the unit had finished running, Regan had finished persuading her hair back into some kind of order and cleaning up after herself. Pulling her former work clothes out of the sterilization unit, Regan dropped them straight into their requisite collection bin, and threw her work boots down the incinerator chute. After all, she didn't need them anymore.
Alas, although it took longer to pull on her knee high boots than the laced-up, ankle high work boots, and a little more for her to stomp in them and yank on them some more to properly seat her heels in them, all of that still didn't take long. There were no other tasks to keep Regan from sitting behind the desk and writing the required missives out on the red-edged sheets of paper arranged neatly in the precise centre of the desk. Standing to the left of her chair, Regan struggled to sort out her feelings. By rights, she should have been deliriously happy. She had enough data to analyse, a new job lined up already, and could take the wonderful news home to Temu. She hadn't forgotten her colleagues by any means, either. The transition would be tough on them, but they wouldn't be without resources or support.
And until today, all of those preparations had seemed theoretical. Now they were real. "Now, I have to get the hell to work on these letters." Regan declared aloud. Squaring her shoulders, she sat down on the creaky chair, pulled a bottle of ink closer, and got to work.
"That was strange," Tig said. "the train never had anything written on it before, let alone 'There is nothing for your order.' What can it mean?" Hands on her hips, she glared after the train as it receded rapidly in the distance.
"Tig, you need to look over here." The tight, stressed note in Penelope's voice brought Tig to her side in a hurry.
"What " The question didn't need to be asked or answered. For a long time, the two women stood together in silence, marvelling at the structure they could just see in the distance.
Nestled in a great cutting in the side of a long cliff, the structure was the biggest artificial thing they had ever seen in its entirety. They were still a good distance away, yet they could pick out the raw edges on one end of the complex suggesting a part of it had been torn away. Giant, decorated boxes extended from the raw edges along the cliff in three tiers. The decoration consisted mostly of garish colours suggestive of sub-units in the larger structures. A row of giant panels perched along the box edges, some reflecting light. What looked like sails were arranged at irregular intervals around the boxes, each one made up of several sections in different strong colours. All together, the place looked like it had been made of the coloured, interlocking blocks popular as children's toys in the city. Or at least, it did as long as the viewer was overwhelmed by the riot of colours, which the two women gazing at it were not.
"Looks like a train station, doesn't it?" Penelope asked quietly. "Though if anybody painted the station like that in the city, they'd be shot. What do you think is stuck to it, besides the solar panels?" Painting any building in the city was forbidden, on the grounds that paint was an invitation to graffiti, and graffiti was dirt. In the city there were eight offences for which a person could be executed instantly in the street; committing graffiti was one of them.
"You're right," agreed Tig."Truth be told, I can't imagine what those other things would be. What use would anything big and flattish like that be? I wish there was some way to estimate the distance, but my sense of scale is zero out here."
"But we don't need to estimate!" Penelope laughed in delight. Finally, something predictable and measurable! "I have just the device to find the answer exactly." After a few moments rummaging in her bag, Penelope retrieved a small case held shut by several metal latches. Opening it, she pulled out the device and held it up.
"I can't imagine what led you to pack a laser range finder."
"I had to, I couldn't bear to leave behind the only one in my life I've ever found in the tunnels that worked." Penelope chuckled, a sound rare enough from her that Tig was even more surprised. "This one turned up the second night we were in the tunnels, sitting just beside an access ladder!"
"Okay, let's have it, then." Tig said this as heartily as she could, lacking the heart to ask her next question. Once they knew how far away this station was, and worked out their average travel speed, what were they going to do if it was longer than this very day?
The biggest challenge in using the range finder was holding it still enough to get a good reading, between the wind and what Tig finally realized were Penelope's hunger shakes. "Eat!" she ordered, pushing the last of her energy bars into her friend's hands. When the other woman began to protest, Tig shook her head. "Don't think I haven't been paying attention. Your metabolism is higher than mine, Penelope. Eat, go on." And she absolutely refused to relent until Penelope had eaten and drunk enough to need to sit quietly for awhile before returning to pedalling. This left one energy bar, which Penelope glared at Tig over until Tig finally ate it.
"We're in this together Tig, nobody goes martyr on this trip." Penelope leaned on the handlebars on her side of the buggy, considering. "Should we say we're on a quest?"
"I beg your pardon?" Tig blurted. Her mind had been nowhere near such ideas.
"I was just thinking about what we would say to the people out here once we find some, which presumably we will at that station."
"Oh, well, in that case, no, I wouldn't say that at all." for some reason, Tig was blushing mightily, right to the tips of her ears. Her mind had been wandering most vigorously courtesy of Penelope's fine silhouette against the horizon, the breeze blowing back her hair. "Not trying to come over negative," she added quickly, for fear of hurting Penelope's feelings.
"No, no, I didn't think you were being negative." Penelope stared at Tig curiously. It was evident to her Tig had been distracted, and apparently with interesting thoughts. When it came down to it, Tig had already settled into being out here in "the big room" as she liked to call it. For her part, Penelope wasn't certain she would ever be settled in.
"I mean, if we were going on a quest, we'd be meaning to go back. We don't mean to go back do we?" sounding uncertain. "Er, I mean, I definitely don't have any plans to go back. At all."
"Me either." To her surprise, Penelope absolutely meant it. She had no idea if she would ever find her daughter out here, and she could live with that. She couldn't live with going back.
"Good, good, it would be a bit awkward otherwise, I think." Tig climbed back onto her side of the buggy, wincing at the stiffness in her cooled muscles. "Why don't we just tell them the truth? We've fled the city, there's no way we're going back. Nobody has ever been sent back on the train have they?"
"No, no. The only folks who go back and forth on that train are people making new smuggling contacts, and nobody has done that in years. My own contacts were inherited." How she inherited the contacts, well, with any luck besides bad Penelope wouldn't have to tell the story any time soon.
"Sounds encouraging!" Tig clapped her hands, and glanced at the range finder case, now strapped awkwardly to the frame on Penelope's side. "Are you comfortable with it strapped up like that?"
"Yes, actually. These range finders could practically survive the apocalypse. I don't know if I explained, the ones that never worked only didn't because they never had batteries. This one is all set, and it's even rechargeable." Finding the machine had been such a surprise, Penelope had not spared a thought as to how it came to be left behind.
It had barely been dusty, though this meant little. The city had air filters everywhere to stop the circulation of dust, there was a whole reporting system for getting any broken ones fixed within fifteen minutes or less. A system based entirely on people noticing and reporting; it worked very much in a reporter's favour to be the first or at least an early actor. The tardy reporters, or those who took no notice generally received a notice for a mandatory education session the next day. The range finder actually related to this reporting system. City officials used it to work out the directions from which a given air filter was visible, then took the data and used it to map out which human officers to send notice to from the security camera data. The officers in their turn often left laser range finders in convenient places, since the air filters practically never malfunctioned. And they knew just where the convenient places would be, since a computer generated the schedule of planned air filter outages three days ahead. The founders considered such clandestine training of the population a necessity for order and cleanliness.
When it came to it, the trip went even faster than Tig or Penelope could have dreamed. After another two hours or so of hard pedalling through the springy vegetation, the wheels of the buggy thumped onto a beaten path and they were moving so fast so suddenly they had to slow down and stop just to get over their surprise. Four people could walk down the path shoulder to shoulder, and it seemed to be covered with gravel, although not the usual, loose sort of gravel used to fill plant pots in the city. The gravel formed part of the packing, all of it rammed firmly together with no sign of dirt in between. The edges of the individual rocks were angular where Penelope and Tig could make them out, yet the whole surface was smooth. Not quite polished, yet very close to that, gleaming gently as the afternoon light began to lengthen.
"I so want to know how they did this. Chemicals, do you think?" Tig asked, running her hand over the surface, marvelling at the faint unevenness. Crouching down and peering against the direction of the light, she could see the centre of the path was higher than the edges.
"That's not impossible, but how could they do it without affecting the vegetation in some way? There doesn't seem to be a real difference between the vegetation at the sides and the vegetation further away." Penelope ran her hands over the stones in her turn, too astonished to think much about any dirt. "This seems to be quartzite, seriously tough stuff."
"Ah, good point. No chemicals then. Another great puzzle is where they got all this orange and yellow gravel from, though I imagine we're only getting started on the puzzles out here." Tig sighed, and set her hands on her hips. "Which is not entirely pleasing. What about all the puzzles left over from the city?"
"The answers must be out here, after all, the founders came from outside. They had to." Penelope took a long drink, then laughed again, a strong, merry laugh that surprised Tig again. "Look at us, we've been worried and determined to get to these people ever since we left the city, and now we've come over all shy with it looking so easy to get to the train station after all!"
Laughing in her turn, Tig clapped her friend on the shoulder, then they got back to travelling.
Squiddy was sure he had never driven so fast in all his born days, because he had never been present at the arrival of women from the city before. His excitement had been such that at first no one could understand what he was saying. It took only a short application of the process of elimination to realize what must be happening, and so runners took off throughout the tent city, shouting for any free interpreters. The runners worked in relays, so within less than ten minutes the call had gone throughout the tent city. By the time ten minutes had passed, three interpeters had gathered not far from where Squiddy waited pacing nervously around his hovercraft until he was nearly dizzy.
As usual, the interpreters themselves were all from the city. They spoke for several minutes in their own language, briefly debating who would be the best choice. First contact was always so delicate. Unable to decide after each person had stated what had made her first meeting easier, they resorted to a trusty stand by. Each woman set her right hand on the other's right shoulder. Then they shut their eyes and bowed their heads. Finally, they each said a number. Satisfied with the outcome, they all stood up straight, shook hands, and the winner strode over to Squiddy, pulling off her work gloves.
"Come on Squiddy, once they make the path they will travel very fast indeed. I would study the last cargo manifest before they arrive, it may provide important information about their state." Temu hitched up her work pants and tightened her belt. Red-edged letters had begun arriving by communication tube for the various block wardens a half hour ago. The children who stood by to catch the message packets as they shot out of the pneumatic tubes were enjoying themselves immensely, with no idea what news they were catching. As soon as a block warden walked by the Dandelion with a shell-shocked expression and a red-edged sheet in one hand, Temu knew the train had finally gone back empty. The last thing she had expected was to hear anyone had come from the city, or to be one of the people to be available at the right time to serve as interpreter.
"Squiddy, one more thing." Temu added in an alarmed tone when setting her foot on the step up to her seat made the hovercraft bob. "This mad vehicle of yours, it does not travel like a boat?"
"Not at all, Creator be praised!" Squiddy declared fervently. "If it did in a few minutes I'd be puking so much I couldn't steer."
"Then I am relieved." Temu stated firmly, climbing in and doing up her seatbelt. She and Regan had gone on a boat precisely once, and thrown up in stereo for almost the entire two hour trip. It had cost them a fortune, but they had flown back by heavier than air craft. Another point in the Dandelion's favour was the smoothness of its flight, even in considerable turbulence. Levitt had spent a good part of the morning explaining how the craft's inventor, a victim of motion sickness herself, had taken special care over that aspect of the design.
Being a responsible young man, Squiddy made sure Temu had her own goggles she did and that they were settled on comfortably they were then he put on his goggles, snugged up the straps, and thumbed the ignition. Before hitting the accelerator, he checked for any loose objects, and sighed in relief when he caught sight of the open glove compartment, where spare goggles just in case always waited. Snapping the compartment shut, Squiddy checked one more time, let out an excited whoop, and hit the accelerator. The hovercraft took off with a whoosh, soon dwindling into a bright red speck with a bit of silver flashing at its bottom.
The steppes tore past them in a blur, and Temu was glad for the tall seat with head rest that kept her head from being snapped back by the vehicle's momentum. The wind whistled in her ears just on the edge of painful, so she fished her ear protectors out of her tool pouch and put them on. So equipped, the trip became even more pleasant. Even the chill of the wind couldn't spoil it, as Temu wore a stolid, thick felt jacket decorated with bright appliqués. Besides being blissfully windproof and water-resistant, it held many happy memories.
Temu had accidentally stumbled on Regan making this very jacket one day. She had not been away from the city long, and the weather, initially blazing hot, had begun turning sharply as the hours of daylight waned. In those days, Temu had assumed this was the main reason Regan was making the jacket, not knowing Regan could have traded for one easily. Instead, Temu found Regan walking back and forth inside a shallow, wide trough filled with piping hot water and what looked like a layer of dark-coloured fibrous crud on the bottom. It emitted an unusual smell, gently sulphurous somehow. Regan happily explained it was a wool smell, which made Temu no wiser though she didn't say so.
Turning her mind back to her present task, Temu tried to imagine what the new arrivals could be fleeing from. In her case, her flight was from fear. Fear of her daily more deranged husband. Fear she might be deranged in her own right. What little Squiddy had told her before they took off didn't suggest quite the same scenario. For one thing, these were two people travelling together who had some equipment. Which meant more information about the outside was available than before. They had managed to survive an appalling storm, suggesting they were quick thinking and reasonably level-headed even in the face of a phenomenon so incomprehensible as weather. The thought of weather made Temu glance upwards, and then to the northwest, where the prevailing winds generally came from. Amazing to think, it had been nearly twenty years now, and still she could hardly fathom the idea of air and water moving about on their own over a whole world. Then again, she still could hardly fathom the real size of the world. Individuals in flight often froze up with the train station out of sight, overcome by the weight of unimaginable and unending space. So people like Squiddy patrolled in hovercraft at regular intervals, more often in worse cold, checking for anyone hunkered down in shock along the train tracks. Temu had not been one of those.
Not to say the space hadn't gotten to her. She had been outside three days, half-crazed with hunger when for a few moments, it was all far, far too much. Suddenly she had jumped to her feet and taken off at a run, leaping over the steppes like a gazelle, eyes wide in a fixed expression of hysteria. How long she ran, she never knew. She only gave thanks that she had enough sense to run in parallel to the train tracks, not away at random into the seemingly endless steppes. The people who met her fleeing like a spirit over the land, dark hair streaming behind her, arms thrown wide, reacted with pure alarm. They were of Regan's people, and poor Temu looked far too much like one of the restless, trapped spirits of the afterworld for any of their nerves to stand. The perimeter watchers turned and fled in their turn, calling alarms back to the main camp. Things took a turn for the better once the grandmothers had leapt onto their horses and ridden out to see about this frightening spirit, whom they had recategorized as a terrified human immediately. "Don't you see that she has feet?" the eldest grandmother scolded the perimeter watch. Bare feet, no less.
The scars still marked Temu's feet to this day. She appreciated them. They assured her that her experiences were real, even if part of the reality she had to accept was a period for which she was utterly fey. The grandmothers had reassured her. "Who wouldn't be so, faced with such a pack of wonders all at once all alone?" they told her. In her own language, a wonder she had sorted out later. Temu smiled. For those old ladies, she could cope with herds of sheep as long as the sheep stayed outside. It had been quite the conversation when it came time to explain to Regan that she absolutely could not cope with the idea of sleeping with the sheep in the dead of winter, she didn't care how cold it was. Sheep did not bathe except for their dip against fleas and ticks twice a year. They were dirty.
Giving herself a shake, Temu turned her thoughts back to the newcomers. It was good they had each other. It would be easier, then. At least, she hoped so.
Slipping the last sheet of red-edged paper into its capsule, Regan let out a relieved sigh. Screwing on the lid, she flipped back the cover to the pneumatic tube, took a deep breath, dropped the capsule in, and closed the cover. A surprisingly gentle puff marked the departure of the capsule while Regan returned to her seat, wiping her ink stained hands on a damp rag. The water proof ink always made the most mess. Remarkably, there were no more red-edged sheets of paper to use, this even though Regan hadn't needed to throw any sheets away. Her aimless thoughts along these lines were interrupted by a pop behind her, followed by the clatter of the just-arrived message capsule falling onto her desk and bouncing to the floor.
Scrambling to pick the unexpected capsule up, Regan puzzled over what message anybody from she wasn't sure where could have sent. The tube it had come out of was obvious, because its rusted on cover had been forced open by the capsule's arrival, hence the "pop."
The capsule didn't even look familiar. The usual capsules were just repurposed aluminum tins, the sort samples of dry goods used to be sold in. The remains of one or more price tags and labels could still be seen on many of them, speaking of different sorts of tea or fancy raisins. This capsule was made of clear plastic and held shut with what looked like more plastic with one sticky side. It took Regan a few moments to work it open and pull out the folded up paper inside, a bit too big for its container and so wedged in tight. There was text on one side, apparently machine-printed.
"Dís dréd vèdá mót-mór. Dís gót védú #!" The city's logo had been applied by stamp rather sloppily at the bottom of the page.
"Well, I may not be able to read it, yet the point is still clear." Regan stared at the plastic capsule and its contents in confusion. Anyway, the city didn't even use capsules, because they feared contamination by outsiders. They used the teletype machine. The last order had arrived in the usual way, listing just the items ordered with quantities, finished with the dot version of the city's logo.
A whoosh sounded behind her, and this time Regan turned around fast enough to catch the capsule. Another clear plastic one plasticked shut, this time with a crumpled hunk of paper stuck in it. Regan's heart began to race. A terrible feeling of dread crept over her as she worked the capsule open and smoothed out the piece of paper. It was a hunk of paper too, torn from something larger with print along the edges. The message itself was scrawled in the middle of the blank part in dark blue letters by someone with poor command of the letter forms. This time letter forms Regan herself had used from her childhood, in words of her own language.