The skull of nutcracker man was on the move for the first time in a long while. His services were needed by the Science Authority, needed by the head of it in fact, so a young scholar had been sent to fetch the ancient cranium from its cozy museum home near the bones of queens. He was wheeled, safe within his glass box, through the corridors and down to the lower levels of the spire. It was in an elevator that the young scholar first spoke to him.
“You were the first person to ever live here,” he said. “The first one who is still around that is. Tell me, has it changed much?” He cracked a smile at his own jest as he straightened out his silken shirt. The Science Authority wasn’t required to wear uniforms like those of the Peace Authority, just a gold-bordered badge over the heart. It depicted a dark face with golden spectacles. The lines of the spectacles connected to every other feature of the face, tracing the eyes, lips, and cheeks in pristine brightness. He didn’t know whose face it was, just that they must have done something important to become the official symbol of the authority.
Nutcracker man did not respond to the question. Three more people entered the elevator, forcing the scholar to pull the wheeled stand to the back. He kept expecting the others to ask the australopithecine a question, but they didn’t give the skull or the scholar a second look. They disembarked after two floors of silent riding.
“Rude of them,” he noted. “You should never ignore your elders. No disrespect to Queen Magthwi, but she’s not the oldest person there ever was. We acknowledge that in the labs. I think it’s the only place in Colduvai where people do.” Nutcracker man accepted this opinion stoically. The elevator stopped on their floor and the scholar pulled the skull free.
The entryways to the laboratories were rather utilitarian halls of reddish-brown ceramic tile. They looked primitive, but each was chemically treated in multiple ways and would respond to all kinds of contaminants in the air by changing color. No pathogen or toxin made it past them without sickly patches of green or purple protesting. The scholar pushed the skull forward slowly, making sure to check the walls and floor behind him for any sign of the colors.
“Looks like you’ve got a clean bill of health,” he told the ancient man when no color appeared. He stopped. They were alone. The young man circled around to the front and leaned to face the empty sockets of his charge. He saw his own face reflected in the glass along with the brown and yellow arrows across his shirt. His badge glinted in it as well. Of the three faces he knew he was the least permanent.
“I know you have a busy day ahead of you,” he began, “but I want to ask something of you. You’re being taken to Zinjan. As the head of our body he is above experimentation. He does not use and discard samples. He converses with treasures, like you. I would very much like to be as smart as him. Will you keep me in mind when you’re in there? Perhaps mention my name?” Nutcracker man did not say no. “You’re too kind. Now prepare yourself. You’ve seen the whole past, but never the future. We keep it here, until it’s so hot it catches fire.”
He wheeled nutcracker man through the last set of wooden shuttered doors. The labs opened up around them. The skull was speechless. There were no walls separating one experiment from another. Skins of soap-like liquid, generated and manipulated by mechanical beads embedded in their surface tension, moved overhead in giant shifting bubbles. When a wall was needed to prevent contamination or give them silence one of them dropped down, transparent but full of swirling pinks and greens. Even with two hundred people hard at work, most of them in sight, the loudest sound was the occasional pop of one of these bubbles as the beads dispersed in search of the next space that needed them.
By order of a queen two generations before Bimine, the Science Authority was never to run short of oxygen. Rich air and the smell of teeming clean life were the keys to concentration, she held, so the labs would always be dominated by green, by the oldest lifeforms commenting on the newest. Nutcracker man was wheeled across tiles where every seam was filled with moss, but moss that knew better than to swell and get in the way of anything wheeling by. Trees ranging in height from eight feet to twenty marked the different areas of the lab by their clustering. Their shade and whispering kept everyone cool and calm, and their touches of needle breeding kept them from ever dropping their leaves into anything sensitive.
The scholar wheeled nutcracker man further in, but the skull was among the least incredible things present. They passed the programming of a puzzle box that contained the genomes of the ten past queens, something that could restart civilization if it were to collapse.
They passed a veteran of the authority with a mechanical arm. The core machinery was so efficient that it took up only the space natural bones would. The transparent artificial flesh around it contained a living ant farm with populated tunnels replacing the veins.
Something drifted overhead, suspended within a bubble by its idling hover engine. Anything that made it out into the public would be given an artful shell and painted by the artists of the spire, but for now the thing above them was just a machine. The scholar glanced up and saw long translucent tubes in its underside, like some of the cheaper lightbulbs of old. Whatever it was, they didn’t need it for light. That was provided by a hovering orb above the trees: a miniature sun with the world’s most perfect imitation of its natural light.
The scholar was so distracted that he ran one of nutcracker man’s wheels right into someone’s shoe. He flinched and pulled it back, stunned to see who he’d collided with: Zinjan. The head of the Science Authority. The man who could see needle breeding without a microscope. The fingers that could tap with a steadier beat than a clock. The mind that inseminated the philosophies of Colduvai with logic and passion. As far as the scholar could remember, he’d never seen the man so eagerly await a delivery.
“I’m sorry sir,” he apologized. “I wasn’t looking.”
“That’s alright,” Zinjan said with a soft voice like laundry drying in the wind. He was a tall thin man fifty years of age. His head was bald except for two silver tangles of hair above his ears. His hands were for his craft, so when speaking to others they usually held each other behind his back. He had the face of a curator by way of a composer; his expression always suggested he’d just realized his own genius and was intent on preserving it. Every smile or frown was a deviation from his serene natural state, so he sought to minimize them.
The metallic blue sheen of his shirt exaggerated the many wrinkles across it. No matter how much he dressed up or down he always managed to give people the impression he was wearing his pajamas, or that he had at least slept in his clothes the previous night. Many people preferred to go barefoot in the lab, to feel the moss between their toes, but Zinjan wore plain fuzzy slipper-shoes.
“I will escort Mr. Nutcracker from here, thank you,” the head of the authority said as he leaned this way and that, seeming to check which side of the skull was more photogenic. The scholar took his leave, back to the command of the man with an anthill for an arm. Zinjan moved behind the skull, whipped something out of his pocket, and pressed the gambling chip-shaped thing onto the back of the stand. It lit up and generated force, wheeling the skull forward without the man having to touch it. He followed it to the deepest part of the lab, where the shade was thickest and the moss darkest.
A wave of his finger stopped the device under his favorite tree. He’d engineered the seed for it himself a decade ago. Its bark was pale and smooth like marble. Naturally filtered water moved through its tissues and could be accessed via a tap he’d installed on the side. It hadn’t lost a leaf since its planting, even when one of his experimental efforts exploded, rocketed through its branches, and damaged the artificial sun overhead, which caused an unscheduled night that put all their work behind for a week.
“We have sensitive matters to discuss,” Zinjan told the skull respectfully, “so excuse me while I arrange some more privacy for us.” He walked over to one of the tree’s lower branches, which was at about the height one would want their spice rack in the kitchen. It had been artificially leveled as it grew and thus provided a flat surface to store several of his favorite tools. The devices were perched in a row, housed in shells that made them look like nestled songbirds. He grabbed the smallest one: a black finch with blue eyes.
With the press of a hidden switch it opened its wings. He held it like a paper airplane, moved his wrist back and forth twice, and gently tossed it into the air. Its glide followed the path he’d given it precisely, moving in a wide circle around the tree. Zinjan turned and caught it without taking a step, thus completing the circle. The path it followed was to be the dimensions of their private room.
He tossed the bird up only for it to click and snap and break into many pieces. These were very similar to the machines forming the bubbles all around the lab, but the fluid for Zinjan’s had special properties. The skin that spread between them, forming a dome that incorporated the trunk of the tree without popping, was black with swirling gray. The completed bubble shut out all curious eyes and dampened all sound that tried to pass through.
“Much better,” Zinjan said with a deep breath through his nose. He moved back to nutcracker man. “If I may.” He touched a button on the case’s base; the glass panels retracted into it, leaving nothing but air between the two of them. He ran his hand down the skull’s wide ape-like upper lip. His lips and tongue rolled around as he imagined what it would be like to carry such massive teeth. “First the formality of the technical measurements.”
He went back to the branch and grabbed a different bird, but rather than toss it he held the legs and flicked the rest of it down like a yoyo. Green tape measures, not quite knotted, unspooled from it. He dropped the item on the pedestal next to the skull and it went to work. The mechanical pieces of it pulled the measuring tapes over the skull systematically, the angles of them shifting at a constant rate. It looked like a pair of starfish incapable of deciding where one set of appendages ended and the other began.
The tape measures circled the eye sockets and made an internal record. They stretched across the jaw and crawled into the mouth to flatten against the palate. When the device was done it slithered off nutcracker man’s face and compacted back to its bird-like shape. Zinjan returned it to the branch, but pulled one tape measure out of it.
“Now it’s time for the real measurements,” he declared, stretching the composite material between his hands. He went to work copying the device’s path across the skull. “Seventeen… Five… handsome proportions certainly. This is all new to you; I prefer to use my own measurements versus those provided by the machines. Mine may differ slightly, but they’re not incorrect. They just account for the interaction between a living thing and the world around it. My process puts fortitude and spirit into the things that would otherwise lack it. There was a time when machines broke as soon as they were out the factory door. Not my factory.” When he was done he stood tall and paced around nutcracker man.
“I want to make clear to you my intentions with your daughter. First, I intend to make her, hence the measurements. Second, I intend to respect her more than any man on this planet ever could. Third, she’s going to make an honest man out of me.” He tapped the skin of black bubble to make sure it was stable. “I’m forced to be dishonest in my everyday life. The people of Colduvai gorge don’t intend to oppress me this way, but they do nonetheless. It is because they do not see the truth. They don’t know what it’s like to walk through time the way you and I do.
Yes, I know the secret to your success. You realized that every challenge you faced on the individual scale was actually just a distraction. Events are just the grit meant to grind you down and eventually break you so that the cycle can continue. Don’t pretend you didn’t know this; you wouldn’t be here otherwise.
The feeling of that epiphany was euphoria. It was an orgasm of the intellectual soul. It was reading law books and finding the poetry the editor snuck into the policy. Everything else around me became fog. I was the only solid creature. None of the wisps realized that the Earth was flowing through them, that they were just weakening patterns in the background radiation. Weather grinds you down. Love grinds you down. Thought grinds you down.
The irony has not escaped me. I am the very edifice of thought, at least to the people of Colduvai, so surely I’m closer to being destroyed than the rest. I’m the man on the tightrope actually dumb enough to look down and lose confidence in his balance. I acknowledge this vulnerability, but it is crucial to endure it for a while so I can bring you back to life, so I can bask in your mastery of the formula of life in the pathetic tremors of my academic dusk.”
Zinjan stroked the head of another bird. Instead of transforming it whistled out a small tune. The sound cue raised several of the tiles from the floor, up past Zinjan’s collarbone, revealing them to be tiered shelves full of glittering samples of rare Earth minerals and metals. He grabbed a few and juggled them for nutcracker man’s amusement, but the old fellow didn’t crack a smile. Zinjan thought that was just fine. He was only there because he didn’t crack at all.
“If thought is the opposite of eternity, then what is its companion?” he wondered aloud, still juggling. He tossed a hunk of silver ore so high that it bounced off the black ceiling of the bubble. “The closest thing to thought! Proto-ideas. The RNA to the id’s DNA. The thoughts that brushed the barrier, bent it, but never broke out of the fluid animal frame and into the rigid human one.” He bounced nuggets of gold, copper, lead, and bismuth off the bubble. He caught them all and held one of the duller ones in front of nutcracker man’s nostrils.
“This looks familiar doesn’t it? It’s the sort of rock you would’ve made a hand axe out of. We have some of your old tools, so we know you made them. Tool-making while still having the innocence of a calf. That’s your perfection. I’m afraid I don’t know enough needle breeding to replicate it in flesh, but I can do it in mechanism. Your daughter will be just as soulless as you and just as brilliant. So what is she made of?” He held up the copper. Nutcracker man didn’t even blink. The silver. Not a sniffle. The gold. The skull’s face was a little too stoic; he didn’t want to give away how much he liked it.
There came a tap on the side of the bubble that broke the intimacy of their conversation. Zinjan laid the nuggets out in a row in front of the skull’s teeth so he could keep looking, then the scientist marched over to the curved wall and cleared his throat. He stuck his fingers between two of the beads in the bubble’s skin and pulled them apart, opening a hole just wide enough to make his mouth visible.
“What is it?”
“I’m sorry sir,” one of his many subordinates squeaked, “I know you’re not to be interrupted in your sensory deprivation bubble, but it is urgent. Queen Magthwi calls for you.”
“Do you know the subject of the call?”
“Yes, we’ve heard from the expeditionary force. There have been heavy casualties and they’ve become trapped in a most unorthodox way. The queen is counselling with everyone on the appropriate rescue mission.”
“Then she absolutely will need me,” Zinjan said with a sigh. He glanced at nutcracker man. He bit his lip. There was no reason to be nervous. Inside or outside the bubble the australopithecine would endure. He just didn’t want anyone else to touch nutcracker man. Zinjan was the only one close enough to touch, the only one who felt gooseflesh upon contact with those old bones. “Take care of my guest, will you? We still have much to discuss about the emptiness in his head.”
The counsel room, like many rooms high in the spire, had windows overlooking the city. In this case it was to make sure those present always had perspective when discussing matters of great importance. Magthwi had called the heads of both authorities, Miser Koulsy and Zinjan, as well as many other experts in various fields, to discuss the situation excellently recreated before them in miniature.
Though Colduvai technology within the spire could easily have done so with the use of holograms and computers, the plight of the expeditionary force was laid out on the table as a series of carved and painted wood miniatures. The long table had depth to it, allowing different topographical boards to be dropped in and out.
More than fifty carpenters had, over the course of just four hours, created the green and yellow fields, the braid of grass showing the expeditionary force’s path, the hole in the ground and the building lodged within, and figurines for every member of the force known to still live. There was one for the survivor Mwadine as well, but they simply had to guess at what her face looked like. One of the carpenters shirked his creative duties and simply put his aunt’s face on it instead.
Queen Magthwi sat at the head of the table, toying with the miniature of the grass-comber. She was flanked by her daughters Amandili and Flavakinji. Next to them sat the heads of the two authorities. The experts decreased in importance the further they sat from the head of the table, but on the other end, directly across from the queen, sat a completely ordinary citizen of Colduvai.
A different person was called to fill that role every time and it was considered a great honor. Just like the windows, they were there to offer perspective. This time the citizen was an older woman: a retired lifeguard from the river’s edge who had watched over swimming and splashing children for three decades. Her name was not important, only her lowly status, but she was quick to tell anyone, even those who didn’t ask, that she was called Huzilwa. She had blue eyes, a rare trait in Colduvai, which reached all the way across the table and met Magthwi’s.
“A five part elevator basket, its weight consisting mostly of rope, would be extremely easy to carry all the way there,” an engineer suggested. The meeting had already been going on for half an hour. The queen had gone through her obligatory statements about the suffering of their people and how their efforts to rescue them would be swift but calculated. “It’s a simple matter to take an extra one in case of malfunction. The devices are already in storage; they were used in the mine collapse eight years ago. One by one it can bring them all out of that hole.”
“So the mechanics of it are no issue,” Magthwi said with a pleased nod. “Next is the discussion of our volunteers. Mister Koulsy, please give your suggestion for the composition of the rescue party.” The head of the Peace Authority cleared his throat, but did not stand. Flavakinji did, and brought out something she’d held in her lap. It was against protocol for princesses to hover about the room, they could be very distracting, but Flavakinji had her own protocol. The item she held was a box filled with more miniature soldiers. She walked to the middle of the table, where the collapsed ground and Laetoli building were, leaned between the shoulders of two very uncomfortable publicists, and started placing the figurines around the hole.
“My choice to head the rescue party is a longtime river scout by the name of Tshibamba. He has journeyed that far from Colduvai before, following the river in several incidents of suspicious runoff in our waters. He has experience with both wild animal attacks and derelict vessels that washed up on shore, some of which had living hostile computer systems,” Mister Koulsy explained. “That experience seems relevant given this ‘flying building’ business.” He looked up to his queen. She said nothing. Her eyes were fixed on the roof of the miniature building. Flavakinji placed a few more soldiers. “He will be accompanied by his daughter, also an experienced member of the Peace Authority, Liona-lima. She will be his second in command. From there we have fifteen more volunteers with experience beyond the grove.”
“I have interviewed them,” Flavakinji put forth without prompting. Her mother’s eyes still didn’t move. “There is not a weak soul among them; they can handle the sight of the many dead.” There was a silent moment, but then the princess reached over the table, her shadow stretching across the land like a god’s, and grabbed the building’s roof. She lifted it out and set it aside. Her hand dipped back into the hole and came out with several tiny wooden totems like sarcophagi: the dead.
“Sister,” Amandili chided softly.
“We’re sending them in there,” Flavakinji said, “and making them look at the real thing. The least we can do is acknowledge that. Besides, it must be decided if we are bringing the bodies back for burial or cremation.” She placed the totems on a tiny sledge and pushed it along the grass braid, toward home.
“As you said, they are retrieving the bodies,” the queen remarked, “not you. Please take your seat.” Her daughter nodded curtly and returned to her side. “Mister Koulsy, is there reason to be concerned about the bodies?”
“Absolutely,” Zinjan interrupted. He was flipping through the pages of the official report, eyes darting from line to line but never to the entire table staring at him. “And it is not a concern of time, weight, or appropriate burial.”
“What is your concern?” Magthwi asked.
“The details of this report disturb me greatly,” the head of the Science Authority claimed, without a speck of emotion on his face. “This ‘Varroa the Destructor’ that supposedly ended the city of Laetoli and its queen… sounds very much like a plague. They were all in that city. Corpses and live humans are the same thing: vectors for disease. We should consider bringing nothing back at all.”
“You’re not suggesting that Queen Magthwi leave them there to die, are you?” Huzilwa asked from the end of the table. It seemed everyone was full of vinegar that day, as the token civilian had been advised to keep all of her comments and advice for the end of the meeting.
“No,” Zinjan answered. “I’m just suggesting that, once dug out of the hole, they should not enter the grove, the river upstream, or the city. They should be quarantined in a temporary village outside the monoculture for the foreseeable future to prevent an iota of Varroa from entering our populace.”
“And the rescue party?” one of the engineers asked.
“They, having come into contact with the expeditionary force, would have to be quarantined as well. The other solution is to put these rope devices on an automated vehicle and send that in place of a rescue party. That way no more contact has to be made.”
“You think the risk that high?” Amandili asked, concern knitting her brow. Her foot tapped under the table nervously, but her mother’s hand drifted across her thigh for a moment, stalling it. Zinjan responded by pushing his chair back, grabbing the wooden edge of the table, and grunting as he scratched and pulled at it.
“What are you doing? Now’s not the time to act like a cooped-up house pet,” Mister Koulsy growled.
“I’m just trying to pull this map out,” Zinjan grunted. “You see, you may not realize this Koulsy, but there’s a whole world past the lip of this table.” He stood, grunted harder, and leaned back. The entire table groaned as it skewed a few centimeters. Several at the table accused him of being disruptive. He released his grip and huffed at the exertion, looking a little disappointed that he didn’t move it further.
“That’s enough theatrics,” the queen proclaimed. Zinjan sat, now unsure if he should try to push the table back.
“My point is,” he resumed, “that Laetoli was our last neighbor with a voice. Now that it has fallen that could make us the last human civilization on the planet. We’ve never tried to observe these collapses closely. A queendom to unrest here, a natural disaster there. Something has moved through us in waves, tearing us down. We know so little about it that we might as well call it Varroa the Destructor.”
“What the others did is no concern of ours,” a cartographer said from the far end of the table. “We strike them off the map because we remain. We have the key to human success: Queen Magthwi.”
“She is right,” Magthwi said confidently. “You have no cause for concern Zinjan; we are immune to any such threats simply because if we are not, there is no Colduvai. Countless cities have tried measures like yours and they faded regardless. Faltering, defending against things that should’ve broken upon their side, may have been the cause of their downfall. We will send a rescue party, the expeditionary force will be returned to us, and there will be no quarantine.”
“I ask then that we take a different precaution,” Zinjan offered. “We have a machine we call the scouring lamp. It’s not intrusive at all; its job is to eliminate microorganisms with its invisible touch. It flies as well, so I would like it to make one or two passes over the expeditionary force and the rescue party when they return.”
“I’m familiar with all the Science Authority’s euphemisms,” Queen Magthwi said, “and we will not be irradiating them as a welcome home present.” Most around the table nodded. With no further objections the queen asked Huzilwa to offer her assessment of the situation.
“I was never like you, my queen,” the woman offered. “There were times when I failed. I have seen people drown before I could get to them. Our waters are perfect and clean, but sometimes nature will find a way to remind you that you are the same as any bug under any rock.” She reached across the table and touched a replica of a pond along the side of the grass braid. She was surprised to find it filled with real water. She sniffed her wet fingertip and smiled, remembering the river.
“When someone drowned,” she continued, “the body was rarely reclaimed. The river took it, owned it. We let it have its prize. I do not know about flying buildings, caverns, and rope machines, but I know that the world has claimed the dead and they are already buried. I think it is best to leave the bodies there.”
“Would you like to have dinner with me?” Zinjan asked her. Every head turned his way. “What? That’s remarkably insightful. Besides, the meeting is over.” They turned to Magthwi. She smirked.
“Yes, the meeting is over,” she confirmed. “You may all now flirt with each other as much as you like.” There was nervous laughter as the queen stood and escorted her two daughters from the room. There was no mention of whether she took Huzilwa’s suggestion to heart. The former lifeguard was not too upset though, as she’d never expected to make a splash. When she looked back at Zinjan she saw his eyes wide and expectant.
“Yes,” she mouthed to him, grabbing the bottom of the table and straightening it back out. Zinjan hopped up like there was a scorpion at his feet, but then smiled back. Nutcracker man’s daughter didn’t need a mother, but she could have one. He just needed to take some maternal measurements; borrowing would be more precise a word.
The vicious gym from Laetoli had plenty of arteries in the form of wires, ropes, elevator cables, and elastic bands from the exercise machines. The expeditionary force stripped the non-essential ones and used them to weave a sturdier expanded rope with the remains of the grass braid. It was properly rooted to the building’s bottom floor and reached low enough that they no longer had to build human pyramids to climb back and forth.
They would’ve liked to weave a second rope to make travel between the cavern floor and the gym faster, but attempts to cut away any significant wires or cables resulted in the building shuddering to life, threatening to dislodge itself and crush them all. Its spasms included flashing lights, whirring machinery, and belches of flame that seemed to come from different openings each time.
Commander Begumisa had ordered it to be left alone. Colduvai had responded as she’d hoped, even if it wasn’t as she’d expected. There was a rescue party incoming, set to arrive in several days aboard a vehicle much faster than the grass-comber. They would bring with them steaming cups of coffee: the tears Magthwi shed for their misfortune. The force had cheered at the news and sung songs, but boredom struck quickly after that.
They only had access to the gym’s bottom floor, and any attempts to activate the elevators or cut through the doors to ascend was met with mechanical hostility. Many started passing the time by playing with whatever equipment was tossed down to the cavern dirt: inflatable balls, discus toys that sang when thrown, and jumping ropes. Begumisa did not think it wise for them to spend their energy thusly, not with their food supply in question. The rescue party would surely arrive before anyone died of starvation, but not before their empty stomachs made them angry. Still, she didn’t quite tell them to stop.
The toys were an adequate distraction while she, Genomon, and Mwadine searched the lower level of the gym for foodstuffs, water, and useful devices. The survivor claimed she would be of no use, but Begumisa insisted. She was at least familiar with all the machines that the people of Colduvai had left behind long ago.
“For instance,” the commander said, laying her hand on a rubber handle, “what is this odd thing?” The trio was gathered in a dark room made silent by the soundproofing material in all the walls. The building refused to let them use the lights, so they saw by the eyes of a hound stick.
“It’s a journey bicycle,” Mwadine explained. Begumisa was familiar with stationary bikes, but she’d never seen one where the base curled up the wall in front of it and formed a blank bowl of a canvas. Genomon, anticipating his friend’s desire to try it, threw his own leg over its seat first. He placed his feet on the pedals and pushed, but they wouldn’t move a millimeter.
“That was a short journey,” he chuckled. He was about to dismount when Mwadine put a hand on his shoulder. His chuckle died as he looked at her. The woman was transfixed by the blank curved screen in front of the bike. She slowly crouched down, ran her hand across the top of Genomon’s foot, and then curled it under the pedal.
“You have to take the first step,” she said. “So many people think they can’t go on journeys, think they are invisible, but it’s just because your goal is invisible without that first step.” She pushed the pedal up as if encouraging a fledgling in her hand to attempt flight. It moved. Genomon leaned forward and held the handles tightly; he seemed as frightened as someone just pushed down a steep hill. “Once you take that first step you swear you can see your goal appear through the branches of the trees ahead. Look.” She pointed at the screen while her other hand kept spinning the pedal.
The blank screen slowly came to life. Its uniform gray became vertical stripes. The stripes budded and branched and swayed in an illusory wind, only it wasn’t entirely illusory. Panels in front of the bike emitted cool scented air. Genomon and Begumisa took deep breaths, smelling leaves, soil, and a hint of wood smoke. Color bled into the screen as Genomon pedaled. Mwadine slowly took her hand away and stood.
“There, you’re doing it all on your own now,” she whispered with a smile, turning away a moment later and rubbing some emotion out of her cheek.
“Where am I going?” Genomon asked. Begumisa blinked. All of a sudden he sounded ten years younger, with his imagination going even further back. The commander turned back to the screen and saw its growing detail speed up as the man pedaled faster. It showed a pathway that was somewhere between compacted dirt and pavement. The leaves that fell spun out of the way by unknown means so as not to obstruct the rider’s path.
Genomon’s head turned toward Mwadine, only a few degrees, but that shifted the view of the screen. Angled up and to the right, several raised curved walkways were visible through the treetops. There were people on them, leaning over the side, waving at the cyclist. Begumisa recalled seeing the walkways before, barren and hostile as they had been.
“This is a recreation of Laetoli’s park: the one surrounding the queen’s tower,” she commented.
“Yes,” Mwadine answered with a nod. “This is what it looked like before the affliction.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “This was my home.”
“Home is any place where you bury love and water it,” Genomon said. His pace slowed, as did the movement onscreen. “Just now you reminded me of my mother. She taught me to ride a bicycle.” His voice quivered as if he might cry as well.
“Really?” Mwadine asked with a hand over her mouth. “I can still do that?”
“Did you have children?” Begumisa asked pointedly. Something about the false park whizzing by put her on edge. Certain things were supposed to go with sights like that. Bugs buzzing by one’s ears. Little rocks in one’s shoes.
“I did,” the survivor answered. “They filled up my life. I felt like I never had a moment alone until… I had too many.”
“The machine worked for you,” the commander noted. “I think it still recognizes you as a citizen of Laetoli. Please, try it on this one.” She led the woman over to the next journey bicycle in the line of ten. She settled into its seat and tried to pedal, but they refused to move. Mwadine did as before, steadying herself for a crouch with one hand on Begumisa’s shoulder. The commander froze. Even through her uniform the woman’s touch felt strange. She feared looking at her shoulder; something instinctively told her that it had turned to a lifeless hunk of gold.
Mwadine pushed a pedal and it turned like a waterwheel starting up. Begumisa quickly took over, getting the bike up to speed much faster than Genomon had. The screen before her came to life. It was the park once again, starting from the same point on the trail as the other bike. She looked over at the walkways and saw the smiling faces of the passersby. A child’s hand reached over the side and waved at her even though they weren’t tall enough to see her.
“Do all these machines hold the same journey?” the commander asked.
“No,” the survivor said. Her tone was harsher than the one she’d used with Genomon; it was apparent to both of them that Begumisa didn’t need any help. She’d taught herself to ride, on many beasts, on many occasions. “There is a ring on the left handle. Moving it will take you to a new place.” Begumisa found the ring and turned it one notch. As she pedaled the park’s colors bled together and shifted. Everything turned blue. A leaf tumbling through the air became a yellow, black, and white fish that joined a school of others.
Begumisa’s arms twitched as she felt a sudden need to hold her breath and swim. The bike must have been doing more than just blasting them with scented air. Her skin felt wet, and not by sweat. There was the burn of salt in the creased flesh around her underarms. Yet she was also cold and beset upon by a great pressure. Breathing took significant effort and went against her every intuition, so she focused on the lower part of the screen and watched brilliant corals branch and generate complex shifting lobes.
“No human has taken this journey,” she said skeptically.
“Don’t be so sure,” Mwadine warned. “Laetoli was the Earth’s most powerful dragnet, but not for the Indian Ocean that you now pedal along. It caught every stray thing in the digital realm, every recording or data pocket released by other queendoms in their death throes. These journeys are all approximations of very real ones.”
“You’re telling me that there was a queendom somewhere on the bottom of the ocean?”
“I haven’t studied them all,” Mwadine said with a flick of her head as if remembering her life wasn’t as exciting as what they discussed. “Nobody in Laetoli studied the footage too closely; it came from failures after all. It wouldn’t help to emulate them. We used their information as decoration; we remade the world within Laetoli’s walls.” Mwadine drifted away and touched the third bike in the row. It lit up.
Begumisa turned and looked at Genomon; he was still happily riding through the park, waving at people and chuckling when they definitely waved back. She couldn’t recall ever seeing him so enthused. As a man he always seemed to carry bad news in a basket on his hip, ready to sprinkle it on if the flavor of a situation was too good to be healthy. The current of the sea rattled the front of her bike, forced her to turn. Her eyes dove into her own screen once more.
A dune of blue sand rose before her; the bike’s incline increased. She pedaled harder, her mind accepting the challenge immediately. She felt resistance in the pedals, but not just stiffness. It pulled on her like wet sand, sapping her strength. Still she pushed and crested over the dune. The current came up behind her and sent her racing down. A cluster of sleek tan sharks with faces like bored cats broke up to make way for her.
Suddenly she was in a great bowl of sand, its smooth sides compacted to sparkling glass. The resistance of the dune was completely gone. The pedals spun so fast that she had to remove her feet and hold them out as if riding an elephant. She wasn’t the only one. There were other people circling the glass on the other side of it, hundreds of meters away. They wore golden-bubble helmets and held onto the fins of seahorse machines the size of ponies.
Colduvai had no rollercoasters, but Begumisa was familiar with the outdated concept. She was immediately certain that the bike felt just like that, for it carried her at an extreme speed past the point of discomfort. Yet she didn’t want to get off. She felt like an egg being juggled by a machine that had a well-documented but extremely tiny margin of error. Some people who rode these bikes, who took the unsafe paths, wound up cracked in one way or another.
She clicked the ring again when it seemed she was half a moment from slamming into one of the seahorse machines. Its image became so much vapor; the rest of its world followed. Between places Begumisa turned. She wanted to choose where she was headed, not the machine. Laetoli was a place that sought comfort. Its computers would nudge her to safety, to the most popular options, but she was an explorer.
It took her to a series of roads somehow built in treetops. People flew about via spinning parasols, sitting in the hooks of their handles. The sky was full because the queen’s procession was overhead, casting a shadow on Begumisa. She couldn’t look up far enough to see it, not without toppling her bike, but she guessed the royal woman was in a hot air balloon or something similar. The bike bucked back and forth as she continued onto a path made of small bound logs.
Was it possible to crash? Her curiosity had quickly become insatiable, so she whipped the handles off the path. The bike pitched forward, but its simulation didn’t go so far as to crush her against the screen. She fell through the trees, but they quickly dissolved and became a hill, allowing the bike to slide back to a regular orientation.
“Where are you going?” Genomon asked. He sounded concerned, and it became plainly visible on his face when Begumisa looked at him with wild dilated eyes and sweat on her forehead. His own feet still pedaled leisurely through the park. He was going in circles, which was not anywhere at all. Why did she keep him around if that was the sort of thing he did in the face of opportunity?
Rather than answer she went back to her journey, this time through a rough trail in a mountain range. There was a city in the distance. The tops of its towers burned and spewed smoke; she couldn’t tell if they were signal fires or if it was a moving photograph of the city’s downfall.
Even as the leader of the expeditionary force, she’d never gone anywhere. She was on Magthwi’s golden leash. A flash of heat moved through her scar. The doctors had told her that the royal material was successfully isolated in her dermis by their treatments. They said it had become benign. Begumisa never thought it was true. Something in her head screamed at her whenever she tried to paint over it with cosmetics.
For the first time ever, she felt genuine rage directed at her queen. She’d never given a reason for not banishing Begumisa over the scarring slight. It was not the commander’s fault, but nothing could be a princess’s fault. She gritted her teeth and pedaled faster. She turned the ring the tiniest amount, without letting it click over to the next destination, which resulted in her skipping over the entire mountain range and reappearing in the streets of the burning city.
If only the leash would snap. She could go anywhere in the world. She could find the cold cinder of what she cycled through at that very moment, stand in its bones, and feel nothing. Needles prickled in her jaw. Her scar kept her coming back. It tied her to Colduvai. There was nothing benign about it. Magthwi wanted her there, tugging on the end of the leash but never reeling her in. She didn’t want the world to have any speck of their royal material, but she couldn’t bear to look at the woman who had so tempted one of her own children.
“I didn’t even try,” Begumisa hissed through gritted teeth. “She saw what she wanted in me.” The streets of the burning city were not empty. People milled around in the hundreds, staring at the fires, barely sidestepping any falling debris. The bike slowed and rattled, simulating the jostling of passing through a crowd. “Get out of the way,” she growled as if swatting at gnats. One of her hands left the handle to shoo them away, but the people on the screen paid her no heed.
Begumisa slowed her pedaling and turned; the bike hit a bump as it ascended to a sidewalk. She stopped and stared into a glass window. It was some kind of dresser’s shop, but there were no mannequins. There had been at some point, for there were outfits piled near the glass as if the items holding them up had suddenly vanished. The lights were out and there wasn’t a single person inside. She looked up and was shocked to see the roof of the gym.
Two deep breaths later, she looked instead at the top of the screen. Its angle drifted up and allowed her to look at the sky over the burning city: the dark of night. The shop was closed; that was why there were no patrons. Surely much of the populace was asleep in their homes. The simulation grew fuzzy, but only because Begumisa wasn’t pedaling. She turned back into the street and resumed her search.
Eyes of all ages surrounded her like flies at the edge of a dead salty lake. They completely lacked focus, as if the spirit level in their minds had cracked. The crowds didn’t seem to know which way was up. Some of them wept, but most stood there expectantly, waiting for something to save them from the collapsing blaze above.
In wading through the crowd she crossed the open door of a residential complex. It had to be homes. She could see down the hall, to numerous doors, and all the mismatched welcome mats set out in front of them. There were mailboxes on the wall and doorbells. The corridor was empty. Staring up at it she couldn’t see a single light in any of its windows. It simply felt hollow, like seeing a half-buried conch shell on a polluted beach.
Pedaling was too difficult; there were too many people in the way and the simulation refused to make them passable. Begumisa tried stepping off the pedals and walking the bike forward, but the journey bike responded by trying to shut itself down. All she could do was hop back on and push on the pedals with all her might. Her clothes clung to her body. Her throat was dry, and not just from the exertion. The machine put ash and heat into the air around her. She breathed the dust of the city and the drifting skin and hair of its lost people.
Every building she crossed, even those that weren’t on fire, was empty. The people pooled around them like tar. Begumisa’s bike rolled over a few bodies with no obvious injuries, but she recognized the condition in their confused expressions. They were smothered to death by the people around them. It was a death of discomfort, of not knowing when to speak up, of not understanding when the crowd had forsaken their individual humanity. This happened to them even with doors all over the city flung open. For some reason the tar would not flow inside.
“I’m not your queen!” she barked at them. “I don’t need walls of you to tell me where the world stops and starts. Get out of my way!” She strained against the pedals, thighs burning. A blister formed on the soft skin between her thumb and index finger. Laetoli didn’t know what to do with her either. She was a creature against the cities, not content to root around in their dumpsters like the others.
She found a destination in the form of a concrete tunnel leading down: underground public transport. A way out without cheating the bike’s programming. A real escape. Proof that any of these people could’ve done it but chose not to. Begumisa locked eyes on its darkness and put everything she had into reaching it. Fear was mixed into her inexplicable anger. There was enough clarity left, just a sliver like staring through a crack in a steamy bathhouse wall, for her to know she feared this false city more than the building that nearly crushed them to death.
The bike lurched down the tunnel; there was nothing but darkness ahead. The crumbling of the city echoed around her. This place had fallen to Varroa the Destructor as well. Laetoli had such destruction in its records the entire time, but had never thought to look. Every queendom thought it couldn’t possibly repeat the mistakes of the others. Every queen was a different world with different rules, and nothing could transfer between them as if they were peasants living under the shadow of the black plague.
Commander Begumisa fell off her bike, clutching at her burning jaw. It felt like she’d dislocated it trying to scream, but nobody around her had heard such a sound. They were all lost in their own journeys. Confused, Begumisa pulled herself up the nearest wall without touching the bike’s screen. Where had all these people come from? Minutes ago it had been just Begumisa, Genomon, and Mwadine. The room had been dark and cold.
Now the overhead lights were on. Yellow moths, mere patterns, flapped around under their glass and were projected onto the floor. There was subtle music playing, only loud enough to be heard if you weren’t deep into a journey. All of the bicycles were occupied and every screen was alive with a different place. None of the riders had chosen such a dark destination as Begumisa. They pedaled along mountain trails, riverbanks, and scenic public gardens. None of them had even ventured underwater.
Begumisa stumbled forward to make sure she was back in reality. Her thighs burned so much that she was forced to acknowledge how much time had passed. There wasn’t a chance it had only been minutes. Members of her force must have come looking for her but quickly gotten distracted by the equipment. There was only one person who could help them activate it.
Rather than speak to any of them, none had noticed her, Begumisa went looking for Mwadine. Despite her fatigue she still found a curled-up dog of rage in the back of her mind. Its ears perked up with all the happy little sounds her force made. Mwadine did not have her permission to start all of these machines. Laetoli was dead, but one wouldn’t know it by looking at that room. It was the last ember in the column of smoke.
Mwadine was at the end, rooting around inside a giant freezer that had been locked when they first entered. Fog billowed out of it. Only the woman’s bottom half was visible, her hands occasionally appearing as they tossed wrapped food items out onto the floor. Begumisa picked one up without drawing her attention and read the label: Greek flatbread sandwich pocket. She put the item to her forehead. The icy sensation worked quickly, so she moved it to the scarred side of her jaw.
“What are you doing?” she asked, wincing at the pain in her mouth. The commander still couldn’t remember the word she tried to shout as she fell off the bike, but it felt as if the weight of it had nearly knocked her back teeth out. Mwadine rose and turned around. Her arms were full of sandwich pockets containing ingredients from places all over the world. There was a Mexican sandwich pocket, a Chinese one, a Thai one…
“I found some food!” she declared proudly. “I figured that since I could activate the bikes I could probably open all the iceboxes.”
“This food could be contaminated with Varroa,” Begumisa reminded.
“No, look at the dates! All of it has been in deep freeze since before the first signs of it hit my city. It’s fine. Everyone will need a snack once they reach their destinations.” Mwadine walked past her, over to a counter with several machines. One of them seemed to be a miniaturized oven. Its insides lit up when she playfully tapped the top of it with her elbow. Its glass-paneled door popped open and she stuffed the pile of wrappers inside. “Come on up everyone!” she shouted past Begumisa. “There’s enough for all of us.”
More members of the force came in through the far door with confused expressions. They couldn’t believe that such positive energy emanated from within the beast that nearly killed them. It was like being consumed by a dragon and finding a fairy den inside its crop. They followed the jumble of smells from the oven. Ten of them practically had their noses pressed against it within a minute. A tiny bell on the oven rang, but before Mwadine could open it Begumisa pressed her palm against the seam of its door.
“Slow down,” she ordered the excited woman. “You’re not a member of the expeditionary force, so I’ll forgive your breach of the chain of command. Everything we do must be approved by me, and I do not approve of how active this room is.” Those around her took a step away and swallowed back the saliva on their lips.
“There’s no harm in any of this,” Mwadine insisted with a sturdy smile and fixed eyes. “This is a place of recreation, not a barracks.” She stepped over to a panel on the wall. “Nothing’s going to jump out at you.” She tapped the panel; it instantly fell open. A few members of the force squeaked and jumped back, but it was just a shelf full of inflated sport balls. Mwadine grabbed one and tossed it into the group. It was bounced exactly once before a whip of Begumisa’s head stilled it.
“This building tried to reclaim you,” the commander reminded. “Here you are reactivating all its systems. Who’s to say that, once fully awakened, it won’t try to take off and take all of us back?”
“If it did we’d be out of this hole.”
“The rescue party is already on its way. We don’t need this thing’s help, or yours.”
“No, you don’t need any of that food,” Mwadine admitted. She pointed at the oven. Begumisa’s hand was no longer on it, so its door popped open. The wrappers tumbled out, steam issuing from their ends. Mwadine looked at her own hands as if discovering she could shoot lightning from her fingertips. Begumisa took note as well; she didn’t even need to touch any of the machinery for it to read her intent. “Doesn’t it smell better than all those dry herb crackers in your rations?
“It certainly does,” someone said without stepping forward. Mwadine snagged a sandwich pocket from the pile and tried to toss it as she had the ball. Begumisa caught it in the air, but was forced to drop it suddenly when it scalded her hand. The survivor of Laetoli rushed forward and grabbed the burned hand in both of hers. Begumisa froze. It felt like her hands were in a vice.
“It’s just a hot meal,” Mwadine said, blowing on Begumisa’s hand between sentences, “not a scorpion. Don’t make harm where there isn’t any.” Someone picked up the dropped sandwich by the cooler end of the wrapper and pulled it open. The smell intensified. Mwadine pulled away, leaving the commander standing there with a jaw locked tight. The woman confidently strode back to the oven and handed out the packages one by one. They started to eat. They certainly were better than the ration crackers. They had sauce. Heat. Chunks of Meat. Mwadine helped herself to one as well.
“I just want all of you to relax; it’s all I can do to assuage my guilt. I know this is all my fault.”
“Nobody could’ve predicted this,” one of them offered, scurrying after her as she walked down the row of journey bicycles. Mwadine touched the shoulder of a rider, sending them speeding down the path onscreen in a way wholly exhilarating. The bike slowed back to a crawl with the removal of her hand. Members of the force seemed like mere conduits between her and the machines, passing along jolts of electricity. She continued down the row giving each of them a few brief moments of excitement.
“Still, I played an integral part,” Mwadine insisted. An expression flashed across her face; she looked like she was about to grab the nearest wire and self-flagellate. “I broke the little piece you had of your home city. This room, this whole building perhaps, is a piece of mine. I want to bring it to life for you, show you that we weren’t the mad husks you found.”
“This city-piece is much bigger than the grass-comber,” another commented.
“It is,” Mwadine said, standing stiffly for a second. “By the simple laws of mass it should be more comfortable than your vehicle, but now that I think about it… this isn’t Laetoli. Laetoli was its machines and its people. The latter… are gone.”
“We’re here for you,” another woman offered.
“Yes, I know, that is why I’m smiling. This place, this beautiful sacrosanct pocket full of adventures and trails, is Laetoli machines and Colduvai people. It’s a new country, and I have the power to stroke away its aggression and melt it into hospitality.” She threw up her hands, sending the resting moth patterns in the light fluttering everywhere. The walls sparkled. Every bike path took a gentle turn. All their screens converged on an identical place, no matter where they’d been moments ago. There was a wooden sign at the top of their paths, but it was blank.
“What is this new country called?” Genomon asked without turning his head from the sign.
“Laetoli and Colduvai…” Mwadine muttered. “A piece of each in the name I think. Friends, this country is called Loldu. Its borders are open, for now, and there’s a sweet scent inside.” Letters painted themselves across the blank sign: L o l d u
The expeditionary force ate and talked, joking about all the little pieces of legislation that would have to be written for the new land, especially since it didn’t have a queen whose nod could strike as gavel. Was Loldu’s monoculture sandwich pockets? Were those little moist specks in the sauce royal material? The jokes careened worse than any of the bicycles, quickly becoming blasphemous, but none of them noticed. They would go back to Colduvai when the time came, when the rescuers came, but for now they could have some peace of mind in Loldu.
Begumisa stood outside it all, near the rapidly-cooling oven. Her feet still felt glued to the floor. Her fists would clench, but not open. There was a serpent of pain in her jaw, and it was making the rounds. It slithered down her neck and into her gut and liver. It looped through her limbs whenever they started to loosen. It always came back to her jaw and refueled itself by licking the golden dew under her scar. The commander screamed internally, trying to force her grinding teeth apart.
The lobby of Queen Magthwi’s spire served many purposes. Concerts and dances were held on its floor of polished blue crystal, like a geode pressed into a book. Its walls were covered in painted works of art and sculpture. Though many who worked in the spire also lived there, the lobby provided ornate magnetic elevators for those who didn’t. They stood at the far end, their shafts filling with dyed rainbow mist whenever a car went up, as if propelled by a geyser of aurora.
Its most common purpose was tours. The average citizen would never be allowed above the ground floor for anything other than a museum visit, so if they wanted a taste of their queen’s life they would have to settle for the sole of her foot and its harmless dried materials free of the scent of royal coffee.
It was midday and the third of five scheduled tours was weaving its way through petal-chambers of the flower-shaped lobby. The guide was young and enthusiastic, her eyes full of watery excitement. She kept her hands steepled most of the time as if offering her tour as a prayer to the queen. Her hair was extremely long for someone so young, possibly the result of a dot of needle breeding. She had it braided in a rope that circled her neck several times. Every few inches was a carved ornament keeping it in order, each one an exaggerated colorful likeness of a princess.
She escorted sixteen people, but three of them caught her attention. There were two standard expressions that she’d noted among her charges: wonder and familiarity. Some chose to take the tour only once, or once in a decade, so they looked on in appreciation and disbelief as if the queen had built it all with her own two hands. The ones who nodded along came almost every week, in one case every single day, and smiled whenever their guide reaffirmed that all the history was still there, that it had in fact grown by about a week since the last time they checked.
One of the people she noticed shouldn’t have needed a tour. He was the head of the Science Authority: Zinjan. The man wasn’t much of a celebrity outside the spire as he rarely made public appearances. Whereas Mister Koulsy often watched over the princesses, Zinjan had nothing to watch over but nuts and bolts up in his section of the tower. He did live there, so the guide wondered if the man ever ventured below a certain point, if he might’ve been born somewhere inside. Perhaps he did need a tour after all.
There was a woman with him about his age. It was Huzilwa the lifeguard, flattered and slightly amused that Zinjan’s request for dinner had at some point, unbeknownst to her, morphed into a full day of activities. The guide assumed they were together by the way they locked their arms. The sight was so strange that her tongue almost stumbled in the middle of her presentation. Zinjan did not seem like the type for romance, though he certainly had an eye for interesting women. The guide noticed Huzilwa’s unearthly blue eyes. They were unearthly indeed, but not in the sense of being alien. They were simply of the water rather than the earth. Her irises had a current to them, separate from the tides of emotion within her.
The guide thought better of pointing out their special guest; she correctly assumed Zinjan did not want attention from anyone but the woman at his side. Besides, there was that strange girl at the back to worry about. If anyone was going to be a disruption it would be her.
One of the petals off the lobby was a gift shop. It was not a cluster of factory-produced plastic like one might find in places of the same vein as Laetoli, for everything within it was handcrafted by disabled elders whose lifetime achievements had earned them homes in the bottom levels of the spire. Still there was something flat about them thanks to the shop acting as a middleman between muse, artist, and patron. The gifts, the hats, the bags, the jackets, the gloves, the totems, came off as impersonal, but thanks to the aura of their queen it was more like rays of sunlight not discriminating in the faces it shined upon.
This girl had broken away from the tour and purchased half the shop by the looks of it. She had a dyed leather vest, a floppy hat meant for a man, two belt bags placed asymmetrically, a wooden necklace with a carving of Magthwi’s face, and several metal pins of miniature people in spire uniforms or royal attire. She didn’t wear them like a child excited to have new toys, but like a silly anteater that thought it had disguised itself among the anthills by rolling around in the dirt. More annoying still, the young lady never looked at the guide. Her eyes kept drifting up and away from the subjects of the tour, staring blankly at either decorative plants in the fixtures, the golden ceiling beams, or the geyser elevator shafts.
Keikogile technically had no obligation to stay with the tour group, and she didn’t intend to. Magthwi’s secret flower, the one she could see and smell now that she’d tasted royal material, was all the way at the top. Her little visit to the gift shop was indeed just a disguise as a bumbling tourist, to be thrown off the moment she found a way to ascend. Those elevators seemed promising, but they likely had hidden computers and would only accept sanctioned passengers. While she pondered the conundrum she overheard the whispered conversation between Zinjan and Huzilwa.
“I’m sorry Mister Zinjan, but I don’t know what it is that you want from me,” the woman said with an uneasy laugh. “Your speech is straightforward but your intent is naught but murk.”
“You can dispense with the ‘Mister’. I don’t mean to be impenetrable,” he said. Her confusion did not trouble him. “It’s just my nature. I want to get the measure of you. See how you move. See how you hold yourself. So far you seem very comfortable in your body.”
“I’ve never known another.”
“Tell me, how fast can you swim?”
“Not as fast as I used to, and I never raced so I can’t give you a time down the river bend. Is all this to do with your work Zinjan? I was hoping to have some fun with you.”
“It has mounds to do with my work,” he admitted. They took a few steps to keep up with the tour. The guide was busy describing the ten foot water pitcher mounted behind her. Apparently it had once held river water so contaminated with needle breeding residue that any fish dropped into it would come out looking much more like a frog. The guide made a joke about the person who had secretly owned the jug: the owner of a restaurant specializing in frog legs.
“It also has to do with my personal life,” Zinjan resumed when the wave of polite laughter ceased. “They are one and the same. I have a project that requires a woman’s touch, and I was thinking perhaps you could be the woman to touch it.” Huzilwa was the one being impenetrable now, as her expression was somewhere between a blush and a roll of her eyes. “Our having fun will enhance the quality of my work. I thought that, once we achieved the most positive mood possible in a single day, we could head up to my workshop and we could explore your touch.”
“You live somewhere up there?” Keikogile asked, inserting herself between the two older people. They stared at her, waiting for her manners to grow back, but it became apparent that was not happening.
“I’m the head of the Science Authority,” Zinjan explained, “so yes I do.” His eyes narrowed. “What are you looking at?” His head moved in a small circle, trying to gauge the exact angle of the florist’s thousand-yard stare. Her eyes were centered on him, but they didn’t move when he did. She was looking through him: a sensation he very much did not appreciate.
“There isn’t enough young love out in Colduvai to distract you?” Huzilwa joked. “Let us old folks be.” She was about to take Zinjan’s arm and pull him away, but he had other designs. Suddenly he grabbed Keikogile by the shoulders and gave her one strong shake. Such unwanted contact would’ve had the old Keikogile biting at his jugular vein, but she let it happen. She still bristled at his touch, but he was a molecule in the phloem of the spire. Perhaps when he ascended he would take her along for the ride.
Zinjan stared deep into her eyes. Immediately he had to fight off the revulsion caused by her face. She was nothing like nutcracker man. Those bones expressed everything, every bit of weathering in and out of life. Keikogile, even with all her warm flesh, expressed nothing. The twitches of her facial muscles were truly random and impossible for even a trained psychologist to read. Instead he focused on the sick sparkle in her eye, the slimy sheen of something a simple girl like her was never supposed to touch.
“Zinjan?” Huzilwa asked. “What’s happening?”
“You think I don’t recognize it?” he asked Keikogile, ignoring his companion. There was no fear in Keikogile’s eyes. She looked as if she barely breathed, as if she respired through her skin or hidden tubes in her eyelashes. “Twelve years in school dissecting cells, panning through their cytoplasm for gold nuggets like the ones in your irises? I’ve sawed off a turtle shell, turned it over, and seen a golden mirror. I’ve watched proud suicidal spiders spin golden webs far more complex than nature requires.”
“Then you know that I belong here,” Keikogile said. “Higher than we are right now. At the top. Above her.”
“You think so?” Zinjan smirked and loosed his grip on her. Her heels touched the floor again. By this time one of the regulars on the tour, content to stay near the back, had been disturbed by the altercation. He of course recognized Zinjan, and was respectful of the man’s privacy, but he also recognized Keikogile. He had bought dead flowers from her not too long ago, the stems of which still sat in water on his mantle.
“Aren’t you the girl from…” he started.
“You stay out of this,” Zinjan ordered. “I promise it doesn’t concern you.”
“I am from…” Keikogile admitted with a giggle. “…somewhere. Anywhere. Not here. Japan! And a test tube… but where that tube has been I have no idea.” She giggled again, head lolling toward the elevators. She saw the power of the water spray under the cars. Its shimmering was so beautiful, like the blowhole breath of a blue whale.
“One of the first men to walk the Earth is sitting in my home,” Zinjan told her. He let go, half-expecting her to go hopping away like a cricket. “He tells me that we’re all from around here, so that includes you. You’re not special; you’re just convinced you are.” He turned to Huzilwa and whispered in her ear, making sure the nosy tourist did not overhear. “This girl has consumed royal coffee; she’s suffering some kind of delusion.”
Huzilwa recoiled with a hand over her mouth. She looked upon Keikogile again, but not with horror or anger. With pity. Royal coffee was the nectar of the gods, but only when filtered between the fingers of a princess or queen. When it touched a commoner it became tar. The florist was like a waterfowl strutting about with plastic wrapped tightly around its neck, flaunting the strangling thing like a diamond necklace.
“Can we help her?” the old lifeguard asked.
“I don’t need any help,” Keikogile said. “I can go up there by myself.”
“Try,” Zinjan encouraged her. Huzilwa looked at him as if he was mad, and not the playful kind of madness he’d embodied so far, but of the variety that repeatedly slammed its head into walls. “This spire’s security system has more layers than the Earth’s mantle. If you go so much as one floor up it well sense exactly what you are. You’ll be surrounded by guards within minutes. They’ll kill you on the spot.”
“You should leave the city,” Huzilwa warned the florist. “You can’t stay here. Take the river. Its currents mostly know where to take people and animals like you.”
“If I try to get on the elevator, you won’t stop me?” Keikogile asked Zinjan.
“I already stopped you when I helped make the security system,” he boasted. “So go ahead and try. It doesn’t get enough practice.” He put a hand on Huzilwa’s shoulder to keep her from acting. Keikogile brushed the oversized hat off her head, let it fall to the floor, and shuffled silently toward the elevator.
A few more people from the back of the tour had turned around and were watching as she made her way over. Zinjan watched smugly, hiding exactly how keen his stare was. If Keikogile got into the elevator car alone it would lock its doors, blacken its glass, and descend into the chambers below the spire. Most didn’t even know such a place existed. If she got onto the elevator along with someone that actually belonged in it, the machine would drop a divider between them and flood the florist’s side with colorless sleeping gas.
Keikogile stopped a few feet from the doors. She didn’t hit the button to call a car, instead circling around the entire glass tube. All she found was a metal frame and a heavy metal knob on the side. That was the maintenance hatch. She could open it, but it would only offer access to the smooth glass interior of the shaft. There was no way to climb it, only a way to fall. She stood next to it, fingers playing games with each other behind her back, stare drifting up again.
“I don’t like this,” Huzilwa said.
“She’s disrespecting Queen Magthwi,” Zinjan replied, “so it doesn’t matter whether we like it or not. There are set penalties for these things, and as long as Colduvai thinks itself real and alive those penalties will come to pass.”
“You can stop whatever’s about to happen.”
“No I can’t. Not yet.” A man that Zinjan recognized as a custodian for the upper levels approached the elevator. Keikogile waved to him. It took him a moment, but he waved back. Then he pressed the button, calling the elevator. The car was down in moments, glass doors sliding open for him. He stepped inside and they closed a moment later, the florist making no attempt to enter.
The car rose much more slowly when filled, for the occupant’s comfort, and an abnormal number of eyes followed it on its way up. Its top had just passed through the second floor when Keikogile grabbed the knob of the maintenance hatch and pulled with all her might. It flew open with the groan of iron that had been allowed to sleep for years.
“Somebody stop her!” a woman in the tour group shouted, finally alerting the guide to the commotion.
“She’ll get herself killed,” somebody else posited, their voice, for some reason, lightly flavored with envy.
“She’s going to fall,” Zinjan assured Huzilwa. “There’s nothing to hold in there; it’s as smooth as the veins in a waxy leaf.” Keikogile tossed herself into the shaft, silencing Zinjan. She flipped around and grabbed the edge of the open hatch, hanging from it like a frog trying to climb over a windowsill. Her feet squeaked as they slipped on the wet curve of glass.
Zinjan fully grasped that the glass was wet. She never had any intention on taking the elevator itself, but with the pressure of the decorative fountain from below she could certainly get somewhere. That would be suicide though, for the pressure was dangerously high. It was an insane atrocious idea, and it would make for a morbid finale of the tour.
There was a smile on Keikogile’s face; all her teeth glittered visibly. She didn’t even close her eyes when the spray roared up under her. It tore her feet away from the wall, spun her in the air, and pushed her up to the next floor. The elevator car wasn’t even to the third floor yet. Keikogile smacked into the underside of it with a sickening sound like a giant chicken bone popping out of a fat-glob-filled joint. Most in the lobby gasped, shrieked, or turned away. They’d never seen a human flattened like a bug before. The rainbow mist receded, with all those watching thinking the stripes of red had to be the young woman’s blood.
Keikogile peeled off the underside of the car and fell, but only a few meters. Her hands shot out and grabbed the edge of the second floor’s maintenance hatch. Her legs hung limply and her neck lolled back as if broken, but her grip held. The poor man in the elevator, frightened by the impact sound, tried to look over the edge and see what had struck. It swept him away, off to an otherwise normal day.
“Follow me,” Zinjan ordered Huzilwa. He took off running toward what seemed to be an ordinary wall. The lifeguard followed, as did seven members of the tour group that had automatically included themselves in his order. “Open my door.” He held out his hand. Unseen eyes and sensors confirmed his target and his voice. The wall had a textured mural of tree trunks that eventually combined with pot fixtures full of hanging ferns that acted as the canopy. One of the trunks expanded into a column-like shape and then twisted open, revealing a bottom stair.
One by one they all rushed up the curving stairs within the wall. For most of them it was their first look at the interior of a machine. This passageway was not part of the artistic façade draped over every advancement in Colduvai. The walls were cold and smooth, alive with glass-encased circuitry and tightly-braided bundles of wire. It unsettled them as if they’d been shrunk and popped inside a panel on an antique toaster oven.
They pushed on the shoulders of those further up the stairs until they exited another hidden door on the second floor, arriving at the edge of the elevator just as the hatch flew open. A few of them stumbled backward as if expecting a monster of sludge to pour out. There was nothing inside but Keikogile: a girl who didn’t realize how broken she was. Her hand clawed its way across the tile floor, pulling one shoulder up with it. The other hand followed.
She crawled across the floor like a sea lion, hands slapping wetly. Zinjan held out his hands, palms vertical. Huzilwa and the others thought he was holding them back, protecting them from the gold-contaminated monstrosity, but he was really sending a signal to the security system. He warned it to suppress its alert functions for the time being. No guards were on their way. He had a chance to observe her a little while longer.
There was plenty to observe. Keikogile was greatly weakened by the impact, but it had no effect on her mood. Her knees wobbled uncontrollably as she lifted herself up, braced against a railing. Her head rolled out over the lobby. The resulting dripping landed like bombs, scaring those below further away. Her breathing was heavy, but she wore the same smile as before. Once again none of them could quite tell which part of her body was actually doing the breathing.
One thing they all knew was the nature of her affliction. It wasn’t the fact that she had somehow survived the impact. It wasn’t the glaze on her eyes, worsened by all the water that had sprayed up into her eyelids. No, it was the new network of shimmering golden lines across her neck, shoulder, and chest. The pattern looked like a windshield struck by road debris. There was no mistaking its color. The florist, absolutely not a princess, had royal coffee within her.
The cracks of her impact that leaked gold looked very similar to something they’d all seen before. There was a member of the Peace Authority, a woman, who had accidentally made contact with royal material. She had an identical sort of line across her jaw. Nearly the whole city had seen it when she was declared the head of the expeditionary force in a public ceremony. Then they’d never seen it again.
Only Zinjan knew what those golden lines were trying to do. Royal material was the result of the most sophisticated needle breeding ever devised. It worked like the most advanced software in computers. While its power was unrivaled, only equally modern machines could use it properly. The florist was obsolete hardware, so everything the royal material tried only worked in part. The spidery golden cracks across her skin were attempts to heal, but attempts meant for compatible flesh. They would quickly scar and never lose their color.
“You said you wouldn’t try to stop me,” Keikogile said weakly, water drooling down her lip. She looked as if she could have an entire ocean, biomass and all, inside her mouth and still wouldn’t pay it any mind. Her head leaned toward her injury like a stem barely hanging on the apple. “Move.”
“That was a first floor promise,” the head of the Science Authority explained. “This is the second floor. It’s a different world and a different story. So on and so on for every single level of this place.”
“You’re making things so complicated,” Keikogile mocked. “It’s just up and down.”
“I’ll make it simple then. This is the part where you go down.” Zinjan lowered his hands, which immediately triggered an alarm. Within a minute five Peace Authority guards appeared from various doors and secret passages. They pushed their way through the tourists and stood behind Zinjan, swords drawn and pointed at Keikogile. In truth they were pointed less at her and more at the exact center of her cracked royal wound.
“You can be anywhere in the world,” Keikogile whispered to them, “except in my way.” She took a step forward, but the guards did not back down. She was frightening, but not as frightening as the prospect of her scaling the tower. Magthwi’s gold was hidden from sight, and they just knew it could boil inside her as the most righteous wrath in existence. This girl was a mangy weasel to the queen’s lioness.
“Royal coffee doesn’t give you super strength,” Zinjan warned her. “Not even the queen’s hide would stop one of these blades.” He licked the tip of his finger and ran it along the edge of a sword by his side.
“I know what it does,” the florist insisted. She took another step; her head flopped to the other side. “I know what it did. It raised a plant of metal and stone. It flowered into a city. Then it died and rotted away. It’s the knotted twine of life.”
“You mean the cycle of life.”
“No, it’s just string. There’s a beginning and end. The end is extinction. The stalk of Colduvai rots as we speak. I must reach the top while it still stands tall, so I can pluck its flower.”
“I see,” Zinjan said. He guessed that her fevered delusions had metastasized into a terminal fantasy. “What will you do with the power of this flower?”
“I don’t know if it has any power,” the florist admitted. “I’m going to pull the petals off one by one and see what realizations come to me. The world loves me. The world loves me not. The queens are real. The queens are real… not.”
“Take her into custody,” Zinjan ordered. He was done with her chemically-induced poetry. The guards slid by him and approached her. The young woman’s physique suggested she liked to hop around the grove like a sprite, but there was no sinew on her. He very much wanted to know what the royal coffee would try to do with such an inferior vessel, how it would fight for its life, but it didn’t get the chance.
The fountain in the elevator shaft erupted again. A powerful spray blew out of the maintenance hatch, containing more than just water. Another body came with it, and it slapped against the ground with a sound almost as gross as Keikogile’s impact. It didn’t slap because it was injured or dead, but because it was a different animal altogether. It was the slap of a cold reptilian belly, the sort of thing that could mull the same meal for months without eating again. The beast, irritated by the elevator spitting it up into a place that was all lights but no sunshine, opened its toothy maw wide and hissed deeply.
It was a pale white crocodile two and half meters long, with more swords in its mouth than were currently pointed at it. The guards were still free of fear, but confusion had been sown; they had not been trained for this particular hypothetical situation. When a giant leucistic river dragon and a mutated golden florist invade the queen’s palace simultaneously, which enemy should be prioritized?
The reptile made the decision for them, lunging in their direction aggressively. Its jaws snapped shut, narrowly missing a guard’s leg. Oddly, it ignored Keikogile completely, waddling right past her and allowing her to retreat back to the elevator. One of the guards took a halfhearted slash at the beast, instantly regretting it when the jaws turned his way. None of them expected such a ferocious attitude.
Most of them had been to the Colduvai zoo at one point or another and seen the pale crocodiles. This one’s coloration was an exact match, so at first they assumed it had simply escaped and gotten lost in a sewer pipe. All they ever did in their cages was lie around and catch sun with their tongues. This one acted like a proper wild animal ready to drag any of them into the depths of the river.
Keikogile experienced some of the worst frustration she’d ever felt in her life. All of these people before her were thick-headed logs damming her upstream path. They wouldn’t listen to reason and they wouldn’t move for anything. That meant she would have to wait for something else to break the dam: a natural catastrophe or something fearsome that was a touch bigger than the crocodile.
While they were distracted she threw herself over the railing and wrapped her whole body around the elevator’s glass shaft. There was nothing to hold onto, but her wet skin clung to it well enough, allowing her to control her speed somewhat as she slid down to the lobby. She hopped the last few feet and took off for the exit. The tour guide was perhaps close enough to stop her, but was too stunned to do anything. Her mind was filled with the thought that she was witnessing the absolute worst part of history, and that she would be forced to relive it in her tours for the rest of her life. Two guards broke away from the confrontation with the crocodile and pursued the florist, but she was out of the building before they reached the bottom of the stairs.
The animal was going to be killed, and perhaps kill a person in the process, but Huzilwa saw a way around that. She was no stranger to the true nature of those animals, having swum among them many times. She snatched a black shawl from off a tourist’s shoulders, shouldered her way through the guard’s front line, and slowly slid her feet one by one until she was next to the creature.
“Shhhhh,” she soothed. The shawl stretched between her hands and hung like a curtain. “You miss the darkness of the deep river, where the sunlight is little more than its sound on the surface. I have that darkness right here friend.” She inched closer. Zinjan made no attempt to discourage her; he would never discourage greatness. Stopping Keikogile was more about keeping his laboratory intact than anything else. He stood there, licking his lips, marveling at the older woman’s mastery of the natural world.
Huzilwa leapt on the animal with a strange technique: something between collapsing and pouncing. She threw the shawl over its eyes and wrapped both arms over the top of its snout, holding its mouth closed against the floor. Her entire weight was on it, but no matter her strength that wouldn’t be enough to hold it for long. If it realized how light she was it might start to spin to dislodge her. She counteracted this by ordering the surrounding guards to throw their bodies on top of it as well, one person for each segment of its body. In moments there was a large man atop its back and another holding down its tail.
Zinjan circled around to the crocodile’s head and dropped to his stomach, propping himself up on his elbows. He paid no attention to all the water seeping into his clothes. He just watched, a tiny smile on his face, as Huzilwa calmly used all her strength to keep the beast down. It was an incredible sight. Everything she had was pressing down, but she didn’t tremble. He guessed her heart rate was still quite low for that sort of experience.
“What are you doing?” she asked in a whisper when she noticed him.
“Observing. You’re an incredible woman Huzilwa. I can see how hard you’re working, but it also seems effortless.”
“I’ve done this before. Covering their eyes calms them.”
“That would never work on me,” Zinjan chuckled. “There’s plenty of research on the calming effects of sensory deprivation across a plethora of species, but to a scientist it’s pure poison. We’re all about learning how things work, and sensory deprivation is the denial that things even exist.”
“Luckily, I don’t think this crocodile is a scientist.” Zinjan looked past her, at the other bodies holding the beast down. Their hands constantly shifted position. They kept their heads and necks held up, away from the armored scales. Huzilwa’s cheek was pressed against the top of its head. She wasn’t at war with it. It wasn’t a struggle. She exerted her force as if that was all she was: a natural push or pull akin to the wind, tide, or celestial orbit. He looked into her with his piercing sight, saw through the traces of needle breeding, and observed the one thing that mattered: a much older connection to nutcracker man.
“I still have something to show you once this is settled,” he reminded. “Will you see it?”
“Yes,” she answered simply. It didn’t take long for Peace Authority agents with animal-wrangling experience to arrive. They brought with them cords easily strong enough to hold the animal’s jaws shut and its limbs against its body. They sedated it as well and four people carried it away. Zinjan didn’t say anything, but he assumed it would be taken to some section of his own authority. Its origins and motives would need to be investigated.
Not long after he escorted Huzilwa up to the main labs and sealed them both within his black bubble under the tree. She marveled at the twitching heads and blinking eyes of his bird-tools, but not so much that it became annoying. He was able to quickly redirect her attention to the skull of nutcracker man as it rose from the floor.
“Is this a caveman?” she asked.
“I never liked that term,” Zinjan said with a scowl. “It implies that the entire species hid away from the world, probably choking on its own campfire smoke because they didn’t figure out how to bore ventilation shafts.”
“So he is a caveman, you just prefer to call him something else?”
“This skull is Mr. Nutcracker.” She choked back a snort, but not before it put a slightly hurt expression on the man’s face.
“I’m sorry,” she said, startled by the most earnest emotion she’d seen from his eyes. He looked like a child who had just been told they didn’t bury their dead pet correctly. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was struck by what a warm name you’ve given to something so… room temperature.”
“It’s alright,” Zinjan said, forgiving the slight. “I forget that other people don’t see him the way I do. Mr. Nutcracker’s species may have been cavemen, but he wasn’t a caveman. He was a forward thinker. He was not distracted from his life by things like pain and tradition. He didn’t seclude himself in the stone.”
“How on Earth do you know this?”
“This skull was found very close to a deposit of stone tools, some of the earliest known to exist. It’s obvious that he was a forward thinker. Imagine how much brainpower, how clear a lens, it would take to be an animal looking at rocks and see their potential. It was the start of the human species, before we strayed from the path.”
“We invented ten thousand more things,” Huzilwa pointed out. “What path did we stray from?”
“We’ve become opposed to the very planet we were spawned from,” Zinjan explained. “Everything we do is an attempt to best or ignore the natural forces surrounding us. We’re not a part of them. Mr. Nutcracker was. He didn’t degrade his intellect with the delusion of worth. He carried no money, his thoughts weren’t netted by grammar, and when he died his body didn’t go into a wooden box. Think about that last part. He threw himself down on the Earth and let the decomposers take him, yet here he is, more revered than anyone in the world’s abandoned graveyards. He admitted how easily destroyed he was, and became immortal.”
“Is this what you wanted to show me?” There was no disgust or disappointment in her voice. She just didn’t understand. Not yet.
“No, Mr. Nutcracker is just the context. I want to show you his legacy… and mine.” The lifeguard wasn’t sure how, but Zinjan triggered something else hidden below the floor. He stared at her even as a second pedestal rose right beside him. Whereas nutcracker man was in a glass box, this second item was under a dome that retracted as soon as it reached its full height. Huzilwa approached it, as she’d never seen anything quite like it.
It was a second skull with proportions nearly identical to those of nutcracker man. Its lines were a little more elegant and symmetrical, but it still had the primitive protruding upper lip that gave it much more ape-like dimensions than a human skull. It was placed upon a simple bed of thatched straw: a very strange material to see in a laboratory.
The skull was not made of bone; it was cast from a brass-like metal with a matte finish. Huzilwa likened the color to an extremely dark gourmet mustard. The skull’s full set of teeth were made of something that looked like cloudy quartz, but free of imperfections, like it had bitten off the edge of a fogbank.
“This is the daughter of Mr. Nutcracker,” Zinjan explained. He stroked the top of the artificial skull. “As of now she is still unborn; I have never switched her electric mind on. I won’t until she’s complete, as being conscious without a body would separate her from the human experience.”
“Complete?” Huzilwa took another step forward. She reached her hand out to touch it; Zinjan grabbed her fingers and pulled them the rest of the way, pressed them flat against the space between the skull’s eyes. She gasped a little. It was warm. He said he hadn’t turned it on, yet it certainly could not be called room temperature.
“She needs a body,” he explained, moving next to her. His hand moved toward her waist, but didn’t touch. He awaited permission. Huzilwa nodded. His palm wrapped around her side and stroked her flat stomach. His chin landed on her shoulder delicately, like a finch. “Mr. Nutcracker is her father. His measurements were mostly transferred to her. The cavity that holds her mind is the exact same size as his. No room for delusion.”
“And her mother?”
“I would like that to be you,” Zinjan proposed. His hands met over her navel. “Especially now that I’ve seen the way you handled that animal. You are a person who has defied the odds. You’re not just another drone holding up Magthwi. You are part of the natural world. You’re the first snowflake of a distant winter. You’re a fiddlehead drinking dew. You’re a fish warped by the movement of the water’s surface, and completely at peace with the false image it presents of you.”
“How would I mother this being?” she asked. She wasn’t out of breath. She wasn’t repulsed. She was ready for honest answers. Her steadiness made him shudder with desire, but he worked to perceive past his physical attraction.
“I want to capture both your proportions and the way you use them,” he crooned, moving his hands to her hips. “I need to find the parts of the measurements that are meant to be imprecise: the stretching of a finger as it pulls the rest of your body through the water, the bend of your neck as you come up for air without slowing down, and the creasing shadow between your shoulders as you dive deep. Will you allow me to take these measurements?”
“First,” she whispered, “you must tell me what purpose my daughter will serve. You say I’m not at odds with the natural world, but I’ve never had children of my own. Never understood that instinct. You’ll have to do your best to explain it to me.”
“Her purpose is to be perfectly flawed,” Zinjan said. “She is to live magnificently, die unexpectedly, and leave a skull behind for others to find. Unlike nutcracker man her head cannot empty. Her electric brain is housed in the toughest materials on Earth, and it is padded so that no level of impact short of an extinction-event meteor can crack her open. Whoever finds her next will know her life without having to make any educated guesses.”
“That’s lovely poetry,” Huzilwa admitted, “but it’s just waves cresting. I want the still deep water: the fact of her purpose.”
“She will be born to help us during our downfall. I don’t know when it will happen, but it’s going to happen. Every other queendom has succumbed to things we’ve never bothered to investigate. It might reach us tomorrow or well after I’m gone. Either way, the daughter of Huzilwa and Mr. Nutcracker will be there for the transition. She will not panic and flail. She will not turn to fantasy or denial. She will simply hold us as we die and close our eyelids when it’s over.”
“You don’t have faith in Magthwi?” The lifeguard asked. Her head whipped around to see if any spying head had punctured the black bubble swirling around them. “Most would call that attitude treason.”
“Not even queens are immortal,” he said, stepping away. Again he activated hidden machinery in the floor without giving the trigger away. She wondered if it was the tone of his voice or the press of specific toes on the floor, as if they struck piano keys. Two of the bird-machines glided down from their branch and circled a finger-length off the floor. Their flight pattern grew into an oval over three meters long, serving as a warning for Huzilwa to take a few steps back.
The tiles within their flight path dropped unevenly. White quartz sand poured in from the sides of the growing depression, quickly creating a soft bed. Water came after that, pumping from different holes. Even though the pressure was high the jets didn’t disturb the sand on impact. Something had quickly coated it in order to keep the water crystal clear.
A few of the tiles at the pool’s edge rose on their sides, changed color, and displayed patterns like reeds and other water plants. The instant pond had a smell to it as well. Huzilwa breathed deeply of it; she smelled wind, sun, and even the bubble-nests of the local frogs. She dipped her toe in. It was barely cool: the temperature that would make every single pore flicker with sensation when she dove. It wasn’t difficult to intuit what he wanted, and she’d decided halfway through the pouring of the sand that she would give it to him. Huzilwa lifted her shirt over her shoulders and tossed it aside. A mechanical bird caught it by a strap and hovered in the air with it like the world’s most advanced coatrack.
She shed the rest of her clothing, undergarments and all, letting the birds hold them for her. Huzilwa dove into the pool, silvery bubbles streaking down her sides. The moment she made contact with the water more unseen machinery turned. A current was generated, one that matched whatever speed she chose perfectly. The old lifeguard swam in place, arms cresting ten times for every breath.
Zinjan was at first startled by his luck; it was amazing that he’d not only found this woman at the most fortuitous time, but that she was willing to lend herself to his dream. He quickly realized that it was just one stroke of luck. If she really was what he searched for, then of course she would agree. The head of the Science Authority removed most of his clothing and dove in alongside her, careful not to disturb her rhythm.
One of the little birds followed him, whizzing into the water like an arrow. It spread its wings wide and hugged his cheeks. Its tiny clawed feet positioned under his nostrils and opened rubber membranes. Oxygen filtered through the feathers and into his airway. There were blue lines of light over Huzilwa’s ribs in a grid pattern. They were just the technical details: sensors measuring her actual proportions so his inspiration didn’t stray too far from the boundaries of matter.
For the true measurements he had to swim all the way to the bottom, where the sand met the arced roots of the tree above. He pulled himself through one such root and stopped when it was over his waist. He used it like a safety bar, holding himself in a reclined position while he watched.
Her hair, despite its length, stayed between her shoulders. Zinjan knew she swam in the river every morning, not because she’d told him, but because her form was too perfect for her to have ever given it up. Not a day missed. Even in heavy storms she had gone out for her exercise. He stared at the same Huzilwa who started the habit four decades ago. Her age was impossible to determine from her silhouette against the water’s surface, but not her proportions.
Zinjan had a mechanical tape measure that could snake around her body without her ever feeling it. They had used it to gather both the proportions and the exact locomotion of many fish species in order to make false ones for decorative aquariums around Colduvai. Most people couldn’t tell the difference between an Earth fish with roots in the dawn of life and a Science Authority fish with roots in a filing cabinet.
He refrained from using it, choosing instead to trust his eyes. He freed his hands by holding his knees close to his chest and locking the root between them. Then he framed her with his fingers like a director trying to set up the perfect shot. 177 centimeters long. Her hands were dainty above the water and much larger below it, when they had to drag the rest of her along. Her waist tapered, but not sharply. Her ankles could bend enough to make her legs almost perfectly straight.
There was the image of nutcracker man’s daughter. Her body would move silently among the people of Colduvai, never bumping into any of them. It would swim in speedy silence. It would leap buildings and walk their roof gardens without drawing an eye from any window. Zinjan’s breathing slowed as the calm of watching her settled into his heart. The daughter would need a name, and perhaps Huzilwa had some suggestions they could discuss over dinner, or the rest of their lives, or the rest of the nutcracker woman’s life.
Another bird pierced the water and came down to him. Its breast opened up into a display covered in electric white numbers. There seemed to be a maintenance issue with the water pipes that were supplying their measurement pool. The bird indicated numerous pressure anomalies and blockages. There were enough redundant systems in place to keep his measurement session running smoothly, so he wasn’t too bothered. Still, a possible explanation occurred to him as he watched Huzilwa swim through his waters as if she had gestated in them.
If one crocodile could get lost and find its way into the pipes, why not others?
Continued in Part Five