Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
All Offers Considered, Part Three
After so long grinding their way through the thick vegetation, flying along the strangely cobbled path was more than easy. In spite of their nervousness, both Penelope and Tig were beaming with delight as they discovered that this way of getting around was just plain fun. The crazy-quilt looking train station now filled their view on the left, and the path trended ever so gently towards it, which they could tell because its big double doors were precessing slowly from their left to in front of them. Even their first sight of other people hadn't stopped them, though they could hardly believe what they saw.
Whoever these strange people were, they seemed very tall. Nobody wore the same thing either, even categorically speaking. Unlike in the city, their clothing didn't mark them as male, female, or designate. Their clothing had more than the legal limit of three colours. Instead of one of the regulation haircuts designed to maximize ease of keeping tidy and clean, Tig had picked out two different people whose hair were done up in extraordinary shapes and apparently dyed or perhaps painted bright blue and red.
"What sort of people are these?" Tig wondered aloud, as they paused one last time to drink water and gird themselves for meeting Outsiders.
"It seems people took very different paths out here." Penelope commented thoughtfully. "Do you think the two people with those extraordinary things on their heads have to work hard at keeping them?" She carefully stretched her legs before adding, "I can't imagine getting all that together every morning."
"I suppose," Tig replied doubtfully. "it's not the same if you want to do it and aren't forced to, though."
"But Tig, the Founders of the city came up with all the clothing regulations to reduce waste of effort on it. I still vividly remember the history lessons on the war against coloured cosmetics."
"Sure they wanted less effort to be spent on clothing, because that way they could demand a nine hour work day seven days a week. And in the end, we still had to use cosmetics because otherwise we might have looked tired, or worse, untidy." Tig sighed. "My husband hated the cosmetics. He found the hair products impossible to handle, and the smell of them gave me sick headaches so I couldn't help."
"Your husband used cosmetics?" Penelope asked in a wondering tone.
"Oh yes. It wasn't spoken of, mind you. Nobody officially was going to admit the restrictions on how a person managed their skin and hair would become so detailed and draconian even men would need cosmetics to avoid demerits. My husband needed hair products because any change in humidity made his hair go over frizzy. And cover up for his acne scars, of course."
"Right, and he's a business type. He'd need to hide the evidence of a character flaw." In the city, acne was considered the mark of a person who not only failed to wash adequately but also explored their own genitalia for purposes other than cleanliness. "Do you think acne has anything to do with character?" Penelope sighed wistfully, remembering tormented classmates who were incessantly mocked yet were utterly innocent of what acne supposedly meant.
"I doubt it. But then, I doubt everything that comes out of the book of the Founders, so perhaps it's no use asking me!" chuckled Tig.
"It strikes me as quite useful to doubt the book of the Founders. I would have felt a lot more at ease with it if I had been allowed to have any other paper books. Or if it had had an honest revision number." Climbing back onto her seat, Penelope chuckled in her turn. "Did they think they were fooling anyone, pretending the text had never changed?"
"Maybe. Or maybe they never intended to fool anyone. Maybe the point was making everyone commit to upholding the illusion." Tig glanced over at Penelope, who was now fairly vibrating with excitement. "The bad illusion, that is."
When Penelope looked askance at her, Tig finally got back onto the buggy herself and explained. "I think there can be good illusions, when you know what they are and help you understand things instead of mystifying you."
"And now I understand!" sighed Penelope.
"Yes. I now understand why you've never met a chemical you didn't like. You're not a chemist, you're an illegal philosopher who needs someway to stop thinking if only so you can sleep!"
Temu carefully went over the last order again, making quick, spidery notes on another sheet of paper. The stationmaster's desk was so big anyone who sat behind it looked like a child, and Temu had space to arrange each order sheet without overlapping them. As she suspected, the order was all processed goods. Hyper-processed, from the perspective of those outside. The item names Regan and her colleagues found unreadable had made a cold lump in the pit of Temu's stomach, and rather than translate them she had been chasing everybody out of the office who tried to question her. Even though anyone who had fled knew the orders would eventually come to this, it didn't make anyone feel better about it.
"Temu," Regan called gently from the door. "Sweetheart, they'll be here in less than an hour now."
"They are very fast."
"They have an awesome go-cart." Regan replied with a smile. "Only horses would be better."
"Horses!" snorted Temu. "At least the cart produces no shit." Her gentle drawl always made references to what Asok liked to refer to as "horse effluent" sound side-splittlingly funny to Regan, who laughed helplessly for some time before she could say anything else.
"I do know you are delaying."
"Yes," Temu took a long, deep breath. "the items you cannot read, can you imagine what those things could be?"
Surprised by the question but still game, Regan sat down across from her partner to give it some thought. "Well – maybe by process of elimination? What I can read is all electronics, the consumer stuff from Centralized Time. Then production machinery, though not much. Clothes of very specific cuts, kinds, and colours." Regan blinked. "No paper though, and no real ink. Just old time toner you have to melt with heat. And for such a clean-obsessed place, no soap or cleaning chemicals."
"All true. Still, none of these things are on the list. They were not ordered because they were not necessary. There are many computers, some so small and slender you carry them in your hands and use your fingers to write on them. Soap is unnecessary when cleaning can be done with sound."
"Wait, sonic cleaning causes nausea in humans."
"You get used to it." Temu smiled gently. "It is reasonable you cannot imagine what these items could be. If I had only lived Outside, Outside of the city, Outside of Centralized Time, certainly I could not have." She looked down at the pencil she held between her hands. "You would not call them this, nor would I now. But in the eyes of the ones who stay in the city, these items are all food. Highly processed food we can no longer make Outside because the chemicals and the plants needed to make them are gone." She pushed her pencilled sheet over so Regan could read it. "They are starving."
"All of them?" Regan stared at the list, horrified. The list looked like something out of the old internet order catalogues. Lots of powders and tablets. She had heard stories before coming to the tent city, about how in the old days the people who fled from the city had to go on a special diet that started with teaching them how to eat.
"No, no, it is terrible, but less terrible than that." Thankfully, the cold ball in her stomach started to ease. "Most people of the city, they live in the slums. You know this, and you know how much food you send them."
"Sure, but not stuff like this, and less all the time too. There's been a smuggling line for seeds and animals for years."
"Yes, and you could not send any of your noisy, smelly sheep or quiet seeds until the whole train could not be filled anymore. This was the beginning." Temu stood up, straightening her shirt. "Now only the people who live in the true city, the towers at its heart, are outside of the slums. They are few. It is they who are starving." Her eyes dropped. "With them the city dies."
"I think I understand, at least a little. But Temu, those people in the slums as you call them, they sound like they'll be all right."
"Maybe. Maybe." Temu answered doubtfully. "I hope it can be so. Yet the city is their sky. Can they exist without a sky?"
Thankfully they were interrupted by Asok rushing into the room, his eyes big as saucers and his turban half unravelled and trailing behind him, he had run so fast. "The train, the train is back, and it's, it's – please, just come and see!"
It was no wonder Asok had run so fast. No one had ever seen the train like this, and the platform was edged with every person from the now unneeded loading crew, all staring in disbelief. More garbage, or even refugees from the city would have been no surprise at all, really. But this, this was too strange.
The train cars had been rearranged, the tanker cars removed. The doors on the sides of the remaining cars, which usually Regan and her colleagues had to wrestle at each loading and unloading, were stripped away, leaving the mesh siding underneath open to the air. Crowded into each of the resulting modified cars from end to end and bottom to top, packed in bundle after bundle of paper, tubes and tubes of metal pieces, and stacks and stacks of silvery-wrapped oblong devices. A single machine sat nestled in a cage with a sliding top just behind the engine car, a slender, smooth thing, not even a finger width thick. Regan walked hesitantly over to it, and extracted it from the cage, which had never had a thing in it before and in fact had been welded shut, until now. Once the device was in her hands, it promptly lit up, revealing it was a touch computer, very old-fashioned. The screen filled with labels and numbers, and a short examination revealed systematic totals at the bottom of the screen. More and more puzzled, Regan began to walk slowly along the cars, trying to make sense of what was in them.
As she walked along, Regan realized not all of the cars were full of fiddly bundles and packages. Some of them were full of peculiar crates with rounded corners and edges, scarred on one side she could see with large, scored circles. A glimmer from what of the crates stopped her short, and Regan edged up close. The safety barrier was down since the train wasn't moving. Now she could see each crate had a little square on it that looked much like a window, and each window had something in it. Regan gazed at one of these for some time, reminded insistently of the day she had picked up her papers to take over running the station. While she waited, she looked all around, bored, until her gaze fell on a small picture with a thick frame. The picture showed a strangely dressed man with long hair and a beard. The bottom of the frame was broken up by thick plastic segments, which she struggled to read with no success until something seemed to click, and the letters jumped out. The plastic segments marked the edges of the letters, and the letters spelled the name of the man in the picture. She had even heard of him.
The hairs rose on the back of Regan's neck as she experienced the same feeling again. She wasn't looking at a window at all, but a label that held a sample of the contents of the crate. Suddenly she felt light-headed, and nearly dropped the computer.
"You understand what this is." Temu said, catching her partner by the arm. She hadn't rushed down to the platform, because in her heart of hearts, she already knew what must be on the train.
"Do I? Temu, this makes no sense!" Regan waved helplessly at the train.
"It makes no sense to you. It would make perfect sense if you were from the city."
"I'm sorry, but what is all this?" interrupted Asok, who had regained his composure.
"Oh, that is easy." Temu replied with a sad smile. "It's money."
"Holy crap!" gasped Tig, when the train finally finished rushing ahead of them. "Did you see all of that? They must have emptied the treasury and every databank in the city!"
"Yes, and, yes." Penelope sat dumbfounded, then found enough voice to wonder, "Whatever are they sending it for?"
"Don't they send money with every train? To pay for the goods?" Tig asked in her turn.
"Tig, how did you avoid getting in all sorts of terrible trouble? That's one of our basic lessons from the actions of the Founders right there! You could hardly have been paying attention."
"Founders, blah, blah, blah. Dreadful, boring stuff. In my school you could take extra chemistry or math instead of taking more history." Tig turned to face her friend fully. "You don't mean you listened to that stuff carefully?"
"Of course I did. It was interesting, how the Founders created order. I didn't realize what the apparent order meant then. Anyway, the Founders insisted the city must be clean and secure, but they needed to be able to send orders and to pay for them the usual way with money. So before they set up teletype lines because it wasn't possible to use them to send computer viruses and that sort of thing –"
"Of course, computer viruses are terribly dirty." Tig commented drily.
"– and they set up a bank account and investment fund that would keep generating income for them and provide the funds to purchase their orders. No need for any physical currency to change hands, no need to wire funds or similar either. Quite efficient, really." Penelope squinted ahead, trying to see the train more clearly. They were close enough to the station now to pick out where the train had pulled into the station, slipping smoothly into the one complete berth left.
"Except now they're sending cold, hard cash. And raw bullion too, or I don't know a fourth stage mining crate when I see one." At Penelope's raised eyebrow, Tig grinned. "It was a school trip. Couldn't avoid it."
"Logically, they must be sending money because they think the prices have gone up higher than the investment income can cover." Penelope began pedalling again as she spoke, Tig following suit.
"I don't know. It's giving me the creeps, that they sent anything. Sending anything out of the city has been verboten for centuries."
Only an hour or so later, the two women drew up alongside the station, finding a ramp with a pleasant grade running right up into the building. It looked like it was intended for just such a thing, so Penelope and Tig steered onto it and pedalled hard right into the cavernous building. They coasted through the eerily silent space, increasingly unnerved by a place so reminiscent of the city, yet empty of people. Piles of mysterious equipment were stacked against the walls, interspersed with great bundles of scrap metal, wood, and plastic. "I see where the torn edges of the station have gone." Penelope commented in a near whisper. Whisper or no, her voice still skittered off and around the space in appalling echoes, expanding into a sort of sinister, bouncing hiss. Thankfully, they reached the exit on the other end of the hall rather quickly.
They zipped from the hall and came suddenly to a near stop as their vehicle ran onto an extraordinary shag carpet. "Dear god!" Tig choked out. "My father had this stuff on the walls of his den!"
"Was he blind?" Penelope snapped, feeling more perturbed by the swirling orange-yellow-purple pattern than she cared to admit.
"Yes, actually, he loved the feel of it under his hands." Tig was a bit offended. She and her father had got on well, the carpet on the walls was a good memory.
"Sorry, sorry, it's just – I can't decide if it's nerves making me nauseous or the carpet. I never could tolerate this sort of thing in a place." poor Penelope looked sweaty and rather green.
"I appreciate how hard it is to believe, yet it is nerves." Temu stood quietly in front of them, holding a pair of covered mugs in her hands. "If you would follow me away from this strange carpet, you may drink these in comfort," gesturing to the mugs with her chin. "Tea with herbs good for distressed nerves."
"People speak our language here?" Tig asked as they rolled the buggy along behind Temu.
"No indeed. I am an interpreter. I escaped many years ago." Temu watched them carefully, unsure whether to take their calm at face value.
"Aren't there more people here, then? We saw people with the most extraordinary hair, all red and blue!" Tig added, taking a deep breath. She had so many questions!
"Oh yes, many people. It was not our wish to overwhelm you. Red and blue hair?" Handing over the mugs, Temu thought this over. "Ah!" she clapped a hand to her forehead, then began to laugh. "I understand, this was not hair you saw. I will show you later."
"Wait, wait, wait," interrupted Penelope. "This isn't going properly at all. This isn't at all how you greet strangers, you're supposed to say 'how d'you do,' and so on."
"Why, yes, you are right." Temu agreed, genuinely surprised. "Truly, I had forgotten. Among my partner's people, first you make strangers comfortable, then you exchange names. It seemed very strange to me at one time, and here I have behaved in this very way without thinking on it!" Once upon a time Temu would have been a bit frightened by this. Now, she was quite curious how this change could have come about. Not the best approach for an interpreter to take even if by accident, but it was too late now. "And so, let us begin again." She put the difficulty out of her mind, stood up, and declared, "How d'you do? I am Temu." The words sat oddly in her mouth. The two newcomers were understandable, yet their accents were strange, and a few of their words unfamiliar.
The newcomers stared at her, evidently expecting something else. "I fear it has been too long perhaps, for me to understand what else I should say." Temu explained.
Penelope and Tig exchanged bewildered shrugs. "Temu is your name? And you have only one?" Tig asked.
"Why certainly Temu is my name. The name the city gave me, I gave back." Temu's chin jutted proudly. "What use is it here? Or even there? Bah!" she caught herself before adding to her guests' discomfort by spitting to the right, the more usual way of chasing off evil things Outside, brushing her right shoulder with her left hand instead. "Certainly I have other names. These may be shared another time."
"Dear me," sighed Penelope. "things are very different here indeed. I mean no offense, but I would never have believed you came from the city except for you speak the language in the older ephemerals."
"Older ephemerals? Those wretched things." Temu shook her head ruefully. "I am in no wise offended. There is about me not much left of the city."
Tig stepped back and let Penelope continue the conversation, sipping her tea. Temu was telling no more and no less than the truth, she reflected. Where she and Penelope were wearing the standard permitted wear for non-work circumstances, though she suspected Penelope's sneakers were as illegal as her hiking boots, Temu couldn't have been more different. She was clad in a white, pullover shirt made of a fabric Tig had never seen before, embroidered around the collar and cuffs, held loosely shut at the neck by snaps. Over that was a gorgeous, armless jacket made of yet another fabric Tig had never seen before. It's colour alone was wonderful, a vivid and forbidden red, ornamented with more embroidery at the edges. Her pants looked much like blue jeans, tucked into calf-high boots of well-worn leather, the toes turned up. The boots were ornamented with stitching and embossing. Furthermore, Temu had a hat on, a sort of rimless cap matching the colour and embroidery of her jacket. Rather than a regulation city haircut, Temu's hair was cropped back matter-of-factly.
The trouble for her, Tig reflected, was that she could only just understand the words Temu said. She knew which ephemerals Penelope meant, and remembered them mainly as the lesson at school she could always sleep through. Terrible stuff, plays on unrecognizable themes based on historical events so detached from their context most of what happened got explained as "ancient ritual behaviour."
"So, the folks in the city have just sent us everything they can scrape together that conforms to the old-fashioned money of the sort used between people who don't trust each other?" Regan's tone was far from amused, and she frowned worriedly at Tig and Penelope, who were bunked in another former office, sound asleep. She had been shocked at how thin and lean they were. Yet they had performed a spectacular feat – Regan couldn't think of any incidents where people fleeing the city made their way to the station successfully on their own. Then again, no incident she could remember recorded two people fleeing together.
Temu sighed, feeling a bit irritated the others found the load of money so incomprehensible. "Yes, and you can hardly be surprised in principle. The people who created the city did indeed trust no one, even each other." She glanced in her turn at Tig and Penelope, pleased they were resting comfortably after a good wash and bowls of soup. It turned out they had both been forced to acquire black market food to have enough to eat at all, so their transition to Outside food would be smooth. "The ones in the city, they do not understand there is no more of what they ask for. In truth, they did not believe such a thing could occur, as long as there was demand for it."
"If demand could conjure things out of nothing, I'd be laying in a tub of melted chocolate being fed grapes by winged fairies right now." Wilm commented drily.
"Stop there, please." Asok said quickly, making everyone laugh, including Wilm himself.
"I wouldn't want that to work – sometimes I don't really want what I ask for!" chuckled one of the crane operators.
"Okay, folks, back to the problem at hand." Regan sighed and began to rub at the back of her neck, stopping short courtesy of her latest sunburn, thankfully a mild one this time. "We have more riches at our disposal than anyone could possibly have dreamed back in Central Time, with the ironic correlate it's worth all but nothing now except for decoration. The people who sent it are starving and freaking out. What do we do about it?"
"Nothing." Temu breathed. Regan scowled.
"Can't we teletype them a message back for a change? Tell them we only have unprocessed food to send them, and can provide information on how to prepare it and adjust to eating it again? I just – I can't abide by the idea of leaving them sitting there starving to death!" Regan threw up her hands in disgust.
"It can't hurt to try can it?" Asok pleaded to Temu. "They must be willing to at least read a message that comes to them?"
"We can try," Temu answered sadly. "Yet I fear they will refuse. The food they desire is food they deem clean. To be clean is their absolute, the foundation of the city. They cannot leave it."
"Then how is it you left? Or those two sawing logs?" Wilm gestured over his shoulder.
"You don't understand who they are. Women are not among their numbers, for they are by definition not clean." Temu frowned, unsure how else to explain.
"I think," Regan interrupted tactfully. "we should probably get to work on the teletype message. Can somebody find a keyboard?"
Finding a keyboard took some time, and then the one found had to be wired up to the teletype machine and tested for an hour or so while Temu and two more translators who were more recent escapees from the city worked on the message. They were arguing over several key points when Penelope came over to see what they were doing. "Can I help?" she asked, when she had heard enough to understand it was a question of language.
"If you feel comfortable to do so." Temu answered. "It is a difficult message."
Penelope read the text so far in silence. The vocabulary was a bit archaic, though the message still came across. "I can suggest a few changes – your speech is changed out here – or I suppose really, it is our speech that has changed in the city."
"Perhaps both." suggested one of the other translators. They were all looking at Penelope anxiously, worried the contents of the message would upset her.
"You can relax. No woman who lives in the city now can be unaware the city is dying, the citizens starving to death." Penelope smiled grimly. "Every man who has children keeps them in the slums, where the people grow and smuggle in their own food!"
"Will the hold outs in the towers leave them at last?" one of the other women asked this question, her expression wistful.
"Somehow I don't think so." Penelope replied gravely, thinking back to her manager with the strange virtual golf course in his office, and Tig's colourless husband. "They believe absolutely in the city."
Regan began the message transmission by an initiation call sign, and waited. The answer came almost instantly, so she began laboriously typing in the greeting Penelope and Tig had recommended. "Best to start off right, or they may not keep reading." Tig pointed out. Things went reasonably until Regan began typing on the topic of the processed food order. Whoever was typing back responded by resending the order again, this time with non-food items stripped out, with an additional demand the order be filled as they had paid more than handsomely. Groaning a little, Regan stepped aside and let Asok take over the typing for awhile on the keyboard, which had heavy, hard to move keys. Rubbing and flexing her fingers, she watched in disbelief as the reply to the explanation of the food situation inspired a demand they stop being lazy in terms even Tig and Penelope found incorrigibly rude.
"Okay, that's enough. Let's tag-team Asok, and send the message explaining what we can do, ignoring the insults." Regan shook her head in disbelief. Even the word look up tables had failed for much of the rude message, and whatever it said made Penelope and Tig blush profusely and stammer helpless apologies while refusing to translate.
The offer of replacement food and refuge if the city dwellers needed it was finally finished. They hit send, and sat back, expecting another quick answer. The time went by. One of the translators sneezed. The little green light indicating a steady signal dimmed a little, then brightened again. "Ah, they must be sending an answer, a long one!" Asok said. The little green light dimmed a little again, then brightened.
The green light went out.
"Since when does this equipment quit?" Regan snapped, rushing forward to check the wiring.
"Since never, our gear is fine. The cut off is from their end." Squiddy pointed at the read out on the monitoring computer. "They hung up on us." Outside, the train made a rumbling noise, making the occupants of the room spin around to look out the stationmaster office window, a broad, old-fashioned bay one with built in seats. Speechlessly they watched the train go through its sequence of brake releases, heard the humming and rumbling of the engines starting up again. Then it began to move back the way it had come, running far faster than usual, so fast the edges of the platform cracked and crumbled under the strain, chunks of concrete and rebar falling against the train sides. And then for what was well and truly the very last time, the train was gone.
"It's a good job their money was all sealed up still, or it would have been dirty by their lights." Squiddy commented.
"It could hardly have been otherwise," Regan growled. "All the locks and latches were welded shut, except for the one to the little box this wretched touch computer came out of. They never intended for us to have the money anyway." she held up the object, which still presented the original last order whenever a person triggered its wake sensor.
"Ne-mah sé-et." Penelope said, holding out her hand.
"She asks to see the device." Temu translated.
Regan surrendered it gladly. The old computer had been one of many frustrations of the day courtesy of the way its interface elements were labelled. Every label was a small and incomprehensible picture, or so it seemed to her.
Penelope deftly worked her way out of the order manifest program to see what else might be on the device. "Fré Tig deús bàd!"
"Tè pòl!" insisted Tig, peering over her friend's shoulder, who handed the device to her in a gesture Regan recognized as a non-verbal 'see for yourself.' She poked at the computer for a few moments, until suddenly her face turned ashy grey, as did Penelope's. Without another word of their strange, tonal language, they returned the computer to Regan, who promptly handed it to Temu.
"It is the book of the Founders," Temu whispered in shock. Somehow she had always believed the book would somehow disintegrate or vanish if ever taken outside of the city. Slowly, she translated aloud, "The greatest principle of our society is simple and single. It is this. The city must be clean. The struggle for absolute cleanliness is now over."
Tent city or no, the amount of work needed to dismantle it permanently was substantial, which its inhabitants knew very well. By now, deep in the evening of the day the train came and went for good, the initial shock of the abrupt end of the strange reason for them being there had worn off. For awhile, artisans and workers of all sorts could be found milling about, discussing what had happened, working out the story of the day. The Moon crept higher in the sky during the discussions, gradually shifting in its illusory way from a giant, pock-marked ball rolling over the horizon to a glowing silver disc, sharp-edged as a knife. This seemed to be a signal of some kind. Suddenly bottles of alcohol and bowls of diluted fruit juices alongside racks and bowls of hot food were whisked out, groups of musicians gathered on each block, and an extraordinary, raucous party began.
Regan hung back in the vestibule of her tent, feeling ill at ease. "Love Regan, what troubles you?" Temu asked her gently. For her part, she had put on her most festive gear and was more than ready to go to the party.
"I feel weird. I'm so glad this job is over – until now, I didn't realize what a miserable burden it was, giving all this labour to these people who unless they were smugglers believed we were less than even what little dirt they found in their precious city." Regan flushed and stopped speaking, needing to corral her temper. She had read a little of the introduction to the book of the Founders, whose attitude towards outsiders could be only charitably described as bad. "But they're still people, and I feel like we're partying over their deaths."
"My feelings in this matter are also mixed," Temu agreed. "but Regan, these ones have chosen their end. We can no more force them to choose otherwise than we can force the slum dwellers to speak to us on the Outside and open their part of the city."
"I know," Regan sighed. "Word up is a way station is already being arranged closer to the city gate, so the folks who leave won't end up starving to death out here. And so that the slum dwellers can contact the Outside, if they want."
"That is good." Temu declared firmly. "And now, let us go on to the party. For there is reason for joy, even though there is also sadness." And so they went, walking hand in hand.
"I begin to have my doubts about this despicable language." groused Tig as she struggled through another paragraph of the tent city bulletin.
"You're only having them now?" Penelope asked incredulously. "I still can't believe it has anything to do with our language! It has no tones, no registers! And this chaos of word endings and combinations! And don't get me started on their writing system!"
"Oh, I don't know, I rather like their writing, it isn't so tortured with accent marks. Even if some of the sounds it represents are defeating my efforts to make them." Tig answered, running her fingers over the bulletin.
"Not that I can tell, nobody thinks you're asking them a question when you're trying to say hello." Penelope felt deeply aggrieved about this, as she was a stickler for social niceties, even when she wasn't quite clear on what they were.
"My method is simple: I imitate Temu. And when I haven't heard her rendition of a weird sound, I take care to listen to how Lyko makes it and imitate her. It works." Temu returned her attention to the bulletin. "It says here that they are seeking anyone who has expertise in – frames – structures, no," she glanced over at her dictionary. "Structural mechanics, who may be able to contribute full time to the repair of the Dandelion."
"Structural mechanics?" Penelope's face brightened. Mechanics meant numbers, and numbers meant a way around the current language barrier. "What is a dandelion?"
"The Dandelion. A hybrid air ship. Air ship! Remember how the book of the Founders insists air travel is impossible and a myth? Look, this page has an overview of air ships – good heavens, I think it's a child's essay!" Tig laughed with delight. "Oh, I understand! This bulletin is written by the children here! How extraordinary." She surrendered the pages to Penelope, vastly relieved to see her friend's face looking animated again.
"I must see this ship – but first, may I see your dictionary? I need to know how to say that I'm an engineer!"
Within the hour Penelope was off, running down the narrow streets with her page of crib notes for her pending conversations fluttering in one hand. She could run surprisingly well if not fast, though awkwardly and probably only on well-packed surfaces like the paths between the tents. Still, she could run if she really wanted to, an ability Penelope felt fiercely proud of.
For her part, Tig tightened her belt and set off on another search for the apothecary's block. Unlike Penelope she found navigating among the tents a terrible task, unable to fathom how to orient the map she had been given with her dictionary and phrase book. She was giving this specific job another go when a woman pushing a great load of coiled rope lashed to a wheelbarrow found her at a crossroads marked out with a giant hand built from lumber scraps. "Good morning, may I help?" this woman asked. Tig looked up gratefully, "Yes, please, er –" What to say next? Tig couldn't tell quite whether this person was a man or a woman.
"Don't worry about it. My name is Moe." she smiled. "I didn't know everyone had to be so absolutely marked as a man or a woman in the city."
"Oh yes, everyone had their markings worked into their clothes." Tig replied. Moe briefly explained the trick for orienting the map based on the Sun or, failing that, the prevailing wind. "Thank you!" Tig laughed delightedly. "Now I have no need to remember places, tents, these ones here..." her voice trailed off. "I am not sure how to say this."
"You could say you have no need to remember landmarks." Moe suggested helpfully.
"Landmarks?" Tig understood the elements of the compound word well enough. "How can this be? This can be no different than to say 'places', I do not mean all places, I mean – these, tents. Yes, these tents!" She and Penelope were in agreement that the tent city's language was terribly inexact.
"But you don't need to be that specific, what other landmarks are there here?"
Tig and Moe finally agreed to disagree about the level of specificity needed in speech, and Tig went back to searching for the apothecary's block. She felt quite certain "apothecary" out here equalled "chemical scientist" or similar in the city, and like Penelope, Tig was desperate for some real work to do. All around her people were frantically busy preparing to leave, breaking down tents, prepping waste treatment barrels, building things. The four-week intensive language course had finished three days ago. That was long enough to twiddle the thumbs, as she told Penelope. Though neither of them acknowledged it out loud, they were both worried all the work would be finished before they had time to do anything or work with anyone. After the first shock of seeing so many people, and so many together, they were both eager to become part of communities, a word they had just learned. The city had only blocks, and people living or working in adjacent structures were expressly forbidden to interact with each other unless the structure in question either shared a wall or a fence with the structure they were in. It made getting any news all but impossible, and of course all sexual unions and job placements were arranged when requested by the city authorities using the information they had on file for each inhabitant.
Tig paused, grinning triumphantly in front of the elusive apothecary's block, marked out by brightly coloured banners with various types of new and old chemical working equipment on them, from carboys to centrifuges. Now, Tig considered, she would have to decide where to go in the block and who to talk with about her predicament. So many decisions, all of which were taken care of on behalf of every city inhabitant, which according to the book of the Founders made life easier, more efficient, more rational.
Tig remembered exactly when she had fallen out of the Founders' narrative. On that day, the whole long explanation of all the decisions that were already made had just finished playing on the latest teaching ephemeral for Tig's class, the one that meant at the next learning block they would all be split up again, all six of them, and redistributed among classes of eight in the next grade.
And so it was, after the lunch pill and fifteen minutes to walk the circular exercise track. Sweating profusely with nervousness, Tig edged hesitantly into the new classroom, seeing seven faces of complete strangers to her, just pubescent girls who looked about as terrified. What happened next, Tig always wondered if it was a mistake, though how a mistake could happen when the teaching ephemerals played automatically, she didn't know. This new ephemeral began to explain how before the Founders had rescued themselves and the few others pure enough to follow them, from a bizarre, irrational system that prevented demand from being met rationally, limiting what they could choose to have or do. The voiceover roundly denounced this system, because people could not choose their jobs, homes, or anything else.
At the end of the education day, Tig continued to mull over the two ephemerals. In their own way, they each seemed sensible enough, she supposed. Yet somehow she felt ill at ease with what she had heard. She picked up her bag, and began collecting the items she carried back and forth each day, as students were required to clean off the tables and take everything home. They could hardly do otherwise, as they were not allowed to sit in the same seat two days in a row and classroom changes were frequent. Being one of the poorer students, Tig had only four items: a touch computer, an external keyboard, both from the education centre, her identification card and her food case, both from home. Only one way of packing them allowed the case to close, which puzzled Tig a great deal, because the case had no compartments.
Tig lined up with her classmates, all of them silent as always, and they marched briskly through the education centre and out the door without dawdling, each girl splitting off to walk to her own house. Tig walked the usual way home, still puzzling over the ephemerals. She turned left, in order to take a turn around the block to think some more, but her touch computer began to beep loudly and play a "return to your designated path" message at increasing volume until she could see the local Black and Whites heading her way at speed. Frightened and cowed, Tig had gone back to the path straight home.
Dinner was more awkward than usual. For some reason, her parents were not speaking to each other, her father acting as if Tig were invisible, her mother's face showing clearly she had been crying a long time today. Tig gulped down the dinner supplement in a hurry and fled to her room, a small square space with no door and a window she was now tall enough at last to look out of comfortably. She never mentioned it, yet she could see her father knew. He had moved her desk to the far corner of the room so her back would be turned to the window whenever she did her homework or read, because the touch computer turned itself off as soon as it came in proximity of the bed. Tig had gotten up very early one day and in the dawn light located the proximity chips attached on the inside of each leg of her bed. She was still trying to figure out how to remove or at least disable them.
Feeling oddly unhappy – usually she didn't feel much of anything about her circumstances, things were just the way they were – she sat at the desk with her bag by her feet. The touch computer in the top of the desk lit up and beeped, reminding her she needed to set her clothes, lunch, and breakfast for the morning. Listlessly, Tig ran her eye of the choices. Four different outfits, two different breakfasts. She had overheard her father commenting several nights ago that the recent bid for supplying the block had been excellent, coming in well below expected costs. Somehow what the provider had committed and what they were getting didn't seem to match. The item selection was supposed to be much more extensive.
Dismissing the dialogue with her choices, such as they were, Tig glanced out to the hallway. Then carefully, very quietly, she brought out her most prized possession from its hiding place from a compartment near the floor on the wall the desk was pushed against. The compartment was near invisible, she had found it by accident. Yet Tig had not rested once she found it, until she had a few things of her very own to squirrel away in it and bring out to play with when it was safe. Mostly little toys built out of bits of scrap she had managed to smuggle home in her pockets. They helped her come up with far better stories than the ephemerals ever told, of which there were only seven she was allowed to watch anyway.
Sitting underneath the desk with her treasures, Tig sighed. Her legs stuck out from underneath, and now her button up shirt billowed in a way it didn't used to at the level of her shoulders. She knew what that meant. From now on, her name would be on the reproduction list, and she coud be called up any time to be sent as a wife to whatever man qualified. All very rational. She stared at the bed. It had the usual bedding, one of the six sets a girl her age could choose. Tig blinked.
Hastily tucking her toys away in their hiding place, Tig stood up and went to look out the window, thinking feverishly. Everything was like that, except the wife thing. Well, and education of course. A little selection of items, usually from two to nine. Shoes, bedding, soap, food. Touch computers. Anything not already contemplated in the selection menus, like toys for children older than four years old, or the sort of things ephemerals had in them like bicycles and paper books, was impossible to choose. Nobody and nothing said anything about them, they simply didn't exist. Once Tig had made the mistake of asking her father why no one had any bicycles like they had in the ephemerals, trying not to let on how badly she wanted one. "Because we don't need them. Go do your homework." he had answered flatly, his expression resentful.
Later that night, while her father was locked up in his room from which he never reemerged until first light, and her mother bonelessly asleep on her daybed in the kitchen with its curtains closed, Tig crept into her father's office. All men had these places, her mother had assured her, though she couldn't explain what they were for. Tig still wasn't sure herself. Yet her careful, cautious explorations had taught her a great deal. Forcing herself to stay quiet, to breathe slowly, to ignore the creeping prickles up and down her nervous spine, Tig moved smoothly into the room to peer at the big desk.
It wasn't like her desk, a single piece of material bent into its shape with no drawers or cubbyholes of any kind. Her father's was made of wood, and it had drawers, some of them with locks that were never locked. The drawers had nothing in them anyway, except one with strange books in it Tig couldn't understand even though they had mostly pictures in them. For the moment, she was more interested in the touch computer embedded in its top, and unlike the one she used, huge. Tig had already figured out how to activate it and knock down the brightness so the flash wouldn't give her away. Luckily it had no speakers, and apparently no alerts when an unauthorized user showed up. What she wanted to see, were her father's selection menus. What could he choose? What did the Provider make available for him?
Later she would refer to opening up his selection program as the moment her ears came unplugged. The difference felt that startling. Her father's menus went on and on, and there was an option to type in something else and have it made if he couldn't find what he wanted. She found out that different men did different work, and were paid according to their value. Her father was an important man doing vital work, because he had touch computers embedded everywhere in the house. Other men only had the sorts of computers they could carry or move from room to room, and their homes had no automation at all. This surprised her enough in itself, but it didn't upturn her sense of the world at all.
What finally did it was the realization that there was no mention of women or girls anywhere at all. Just one menu, under which the items were: "Current Provider," "Days To End of Current Contract," "See New Bids." The new bids listed different units, and what was needed to maintain them. Oddly, when Tig tapped the menu to see maintenance requirements for the units, she saw headings for "Food," "Clothing," "Entertainment," and "Education (if applicable)."
Later, back in bed, the penny finally dropped. The "units" were "reproductive units" – cityspeak for women.
The crew working on the Dandelion emphatically had use for another engineer, and while an actual structural engineer would have been even better, Penelope was a quick study and there was plenty to structural engineering in city building after all. She very nearly regretted her bravado on this point when plans and data sheets were handed to her, and she found out that she couldn't just plug it all into a machine and have the answers come out the other end. "Not out here, my friend." Levitt said gruffly. "We haven't got the kind of thing you mean on our computers. You can code it up later if you want. For now though, we desperately need updated hull stress calculations based on the alternative materials your new colleagues are providing. They make me nervous."
Penelope couldn't blame Levitt for her unease. The Dandelion was an extraordinary vehicle, and even so the prospect of having it fall out of the sky was an appalling one. She frowned at the materials mix written in at the top of her data sheet, where there was room. "Excuse me," she ran to catch up with one of the other engineers, a young man who wore baggy coveralls and a carefully combed and arranged ridge of hair that ran from his forehead all the way down the back of his neck. "What's up?" he drawled. Penelope had learned to interpret this almost laconic greeting as 'hello,' so she wasn't put off by it. "What material is this? I do not recognize the, the, mixture?"
"Oh, yeah, you're right. It's new. We figure it should have the same properties or very close." Between every other word he made a loud chewing noise, and Penelope realized he seemed to have some malleable substance he was chewing between his teeth that wasn't food. This was so weird she almost got distracted from her purpose.
"Yes, I think – this, these, materials. Their response to heat, to each other, to pressure change?" Penelope struggled, trying to find the right words.
"Well, sure. Our assessment so far is based on standard temperature and pressure."
"Wait," Penelope began tapping furiously at one the small touch computers she had selected as her map, dictionary and so on. It reminded her of home even though it was far different from the sort ubiquitous in the city. She found what she was looking for. "My friend," she began carefully. The young man's expression remained open. That was good. "The Dandelion, it will not be operating at standard pressure and temperature."
For a few moments the young man stood very quiet. Newcomers were so wretchedly hard to understand. Why couldn't they pronounce their r's? "Oh, oh!" he managed finally. "No, of course not. That's why we need you to calculate."
Okay. Penelope got that. She rubbed her chin. "Has anyone mixed this, this," she referred to her computer again, already inured to the bloom of cracks from an impact site on one corner of the screen. "substance, before?"
"Mixed it? What do you mean?"
"The material physically, it must be tested physically, not just calculate about it!" Penelope raised her voice without thinking. The young man pursed his lips in irritation.
"What for? That's why we have the tables and the formulae!" he snapped back.
"Those are for what you know! Do you know this?" she waved the sheet with the mix written on it at him. Her interlocutor's lips turned down.
"We have the formulae and the tables!" he snapped again, face flushing. He didn't have to put up with a weirdo troglodyte. "Look, just give..."
"What's happening here?" barked Levitt. She had taken a shine to Penelope, with her odd mix of retiring nervousness and sudden boldness when contradicted or crossed.
"Weirdo here insists we don't know the replacement material so we can't use the usual calculations on it." he jabbed his thumb at Penelope, sneering. "Apparently she thinks she's a real engineer."
"I don't think she's wrong." Levitt replied drily. This young guy was a bit defensive, probably because he was so wet behind the ears. He had finished his training recently enough to still bring his framed completion certificate out for others to see. "Penelope, what do you mean, we don't know this stuff?"
Penelope sighed and counted to ten. "It has never been made. Formulae say only, only that which we think we know. We do not know a substance we have not made."
Levitt chewed her lip. The old scientific information they had was pretty good, they had been able to resurrect an impressive amount of it in the sense of collect it again, translate it. It saved plenty of work. But Levitt was no theorist and no translator. She was a practical ship's captain who didn't want her beloved air vehicle to plummet out of the sky again any time soon. It made sense to her to try a real life version of the replacement metal on the ground before shoving it into the structure of her ship. "I don't want to add to the time it's already taking to get the Dandelion back in the air," the young man threw up his hands angrily. "but it won't do us a damn bit of good if this stuff falls apart in ultraviolet light or cold conditions like old-timer's plastic." Accidentally looking Penelope in the eye, who jumped back in reflex, Levitt winced. "Sorry, Penelope. Have you ever mixed a metal like this? How do you even do it? I don't imagine we can do it at the blacksmith's."
"No, and we need an expert in chemicals..." Penelope's voice trailed off, then her whole face lit up again. "Is it the case that you could – could you – my friend Tig, can no one fetch her?"
"Sure, Deke can do it. Off you go, Deke. If she's a chemist type she'll have taken herself off to the apothecary's block." Deke's response was to snap his gum rather venomously, but he went. "Did people in the city make new things like this?" Levitt asked curiously. Not much of that happened in the world these days. People were chary of just chucking together whatever material now. Too much trouble had come of the riot of strange things before. Not all at once, of course, and at first it had all seemed so easy to tame.
"Yes, and no." Penelope thought back to the city. New things were always being made and presented in the ephemerals, although it took very little effort to discover the vast majority of them had simply been packaged differently. "There is much recycling. Materials purity is a problem."
"It would be, I'm sure." Levitt replied cautiously. She had heard of the phobia dwellers had about dirt.
"Your mind goes well," Penelope said, smiling. "I meant not so much dirt," she gestured at the coating of fine dirt on the side of a nearby tool tent. Someone had drawn a silly picture in it with their finger. Penelope had watched the person with an expression of sheer wonder. That person had gotten their hands dirty on purpose, and she was sure the person was a male. Extraordinary. "To recycle metal, it must be collected and melted down again. Other things come with the metal."
"Oh, really? You folks – I'm sorry, that's not right, is it?" Levitt blushed.
"No, it is." In spite of herself, Penelope began to laugh. "It is the women who take care of the dirt, for we are unclean according to the Founders. What does it matter if dirt falls upon us?" She had expected to be frightened, even disgusted in a world where the ideas about dirt were so relaxed. Here it turned out, she was so relieved she felt almost dizzy. "We women load the recycling machines."
"Wow, heavy work, that." Levitt chewed her lip. "So, do you clean the metal? Take dirt off, paint?"
"No, it is not for us to handle much the things the clean ones will use at any time." Penelope frowned at the materials sheet. The amount of this metal needed wasn't small either. Where were all the component metals to come from here?
"Then you'd definitely have trouble with impurities. It's a whole living out here, just cleaning up the stuff that's going to be recycled, splitting it up, sorting it out. Neutralizing all the poisons." Levitt sighed and put her hands on her hips, her gaze straying to the injured Dandelion.
Without its foils, the Dandelion looked bare and shorn. As long as four of the barnacled shipping containers and as wide as two of them at the head, it had a typical air vehicle shape, blunt at the head and tapering towards the tail. There the resemblance pretty much ended. The ship's crew had gotten it winched upright and set its landing props so it sat level, reminiscent of a blocky whale with a sharply receding chin – a whale five of those shipping containers high. The furthest recession of the chin corresponded to the end of its loading bay, with two doors on each side like dimples where the crew moved in and out. Rows of reinforced windows ran along its sides and up and down in several vertical lines, which corresponded to the interior lifts. It wasn't like people used to imagine space ships would be, with lifts that could run up, down, and sideways. Nevertheless, they worked well and didn't need electricity. The lifts were positioned carefully away from the foil stubs, which hardly looked like stubs, they were so big.
Probably the strangest feature of the Dandelion were the fibrous panels running around it vertically at regular intervals and lengthwise four times. They shimmered a little, shifting between gun metal blue and turquoise. The children loved them, because if they blew gently across them in just the right way, the fibres lifted up in the tiny breeze and streamed outwards, turning brilliant electric blue. These fibres were part of the energy transfer system from the plasma coils. They were undeniably beautiful, and utterly strange. The only real sign something was wrong in the extraordinary ship was the angry rent in its forehull, its edges blown outward and shiny, angry silver in the midmorning Sun. This was where the pressurized hull had burst, not on impact, but after a long slide through the tough herbage on the ground that had rubbed it like sandpaper until it was too thin to withstand the stress.
At her tea break, Penelope wandered back to the great ship, unable to resist playing with the strange fibres and gaping at the foil stubs. Now she had seen some real birds, and bashed her way through the essay on air ships in the tent city bulletin, Penelope had some inkling of just how effective they could be as wings for heavier than air flight. The inkling was more specific than Levitt's declaration that they were just effective enough "to scare the shit out of you!", though Penelope had to concede Levitt's formulation was entirely accurate even if it wasn't precise. She walked further along the hull, pressing gently on it, fascinated at the slight sensation of give, like an air balloon. So much about the ship made no sense to her, she'd have plenty to keep her up at night. Just as well, she was a poor sleeper. The greater wonder of it, to Penelope's mind, was how this contraption could have been built by people whose engineers followed formulae and tables by rote rather than understanding.
"Whoops, careful," Temu caught Penelope before their collision knocked her down. "this is a wonderful machine." she smiled at Penelope, who had been walking along, oblivious to whatever happened around her as she puzzled over the Dandelion.
"Yes, how is it possible?" Penelope shook her head in disbelief. "This book here, to the young man with the idiot cut to his hair, it may as well be a book of magic!"
Temu winced. They would have to discuss grooming habits and the non-socially freighted nature of haircuts out here another time. "I am sorry you have experienced difficulty with him. He is overwhelmed by this task here." She picked up the book Penelope had motioned where it sat on a workbench where most of Temu's equipment was spread out on. "You are right, about how these books are treated. People do not only model things by computer now, but the change is slow. For so long, it was easier just to follow the directions, I think."
"This sounds like the city." Penelope answered gloomily.
"The city came from Outside. Bad ideas and bad smells, both linger." Temu declared sagely. Penelope blinked in surprise and burst out laughing.
"That expression does not refer to just any smell!"
"No indeed. Pray never to learn how bad some smells may be!" Temu added fervently. Once, and only once, Regan had come home with a very interesting spicy bean paste. For her part, Temu absolutely refused to eat it, repulsed by its colour. Her partner wasn't so squeamish, having suffered starvation enough in her life not to turn up her nose on good food. Alas for Regan, she was forced to reassess the bean paste when Temu chucked her out of their tent. "Stay you outside if you must generate that, outside with your sheeps!" poor Temu had insisted, waving a hand in front of her nose.
"I fear you have indeed met such smells." gasped Penelope, wiping her eyes and holding her sides. The story had been pretty funny, even without understanding what sheeps were. "What manner of thing though, is a sheeps?"
"Speaking for myself, I am damn impressed by their language abilities. It's barely been two months, and they sound practically fluent to me!" the older man nodded vigorously and looked around the council, gratified by the nods.
"Yes, like the others, and just as willing to work too." added another person, one of the women in the breakdown crew. She had come straight from her shift, and so still had on her hard hat, heavy impact and slash resistant gloves, and strap on safety goggles. The last tent breakdown accident involving eye and finger loss had happened long before any current tent city dweller's time. Nobody took their safety for granted, though. They were too far away from fully equipped medical facilities for that. The most complicated surgery the medics could cope with was an appendectomy, and even then the patient would have to be airlifted to Atropatene for recovery.
"These are good things to acknowledge and say here," Lyko interrupted gently, her grizzled hair shining silver in the firelight. "Still, this is not the reason for meeting."
"No," agreed another person, who sat closer to the fire than most due to the flimsiness of their garments. It had been a hot day, and even oldtimers forgot how cold it got at night, and how quickly. "The issue is, the majority of us are ready to leave, and are able to leave without using the Dandelion, which isn't fixed yet." Penelope's concern about quantities of metal available, and the stability of the proposed replacement alloy for the Dandelion had been well-founded. "I'm not staying here for them." The room exploded with talking and not a little shouting by frustrated members of the Dandelion's crew, who had been doubleshifted for weeks now.
"Nobody is being asked to remain who does not wish to!" Levitt bellowed over the noise, and the roar subsided, although her crew glared mutinously at the idea. "But I do hope people are willing to stay back and help us finish the repairs. We've been pulling our weight around the tents, and before that the Dandelion performed almost all freight and airlift duties for you. How many of you have taken advantage of having the Dandelion take most of your gear here as cargo, rather than shift it here yourself?" she looked around the room, staring down many people. "It's not about a guilt trip or anything. In any case, we have sorted out the metal and hull repair issues, and now we just need enough people to help with reattaching and powering up the coils."
"How many do you want for that, then?" a man shouted from the back.
"We need another twenty four people besides ourselves. If we had forty-four people, it would take half the time. Those of us who crew the Dandelion, we have discussed it, checked our fuel and so forth. We can ferry home everybody who volunteers to help out with their gear." Levitt answered.
"All right then. Spread the word." Choruses of 'spread the word' rippled around the room, and then Levitt got to listen in astonished fascination as people began repeating word for word what she had said, bouncing the statement from group to group, each group checking the message was unchanged. In hardly any time at all, the message had spread out of the council and into the tent blocks. It would be all over the remaining tents within the hour.
"I fear you will not have forty-four volunteers." Temu told Levitt gravely.
"No fear. It's a fact." Levitt sighed. "I don't understand the hostility, but I suppose it's okay to be angry with us in most folks' minds."
"Yes, it is for this reason too I think, they take care to praise the women who have escaped the city." Temu commented thoughtfully.
"Is it hard to do, escaping? I mean, are there lots of guards, spiky fences, that sort of thing?" she had always wondered, though Levitt had never had a chance to ask before.
"Oh no, not at all. There our minds are imprisoned. If the mind is trapped, there is no need for a prison of the body. Anyone can leave." Temu paused. "True, the women are hedged in by guards, yet only human guards are capable of stopping anyone. These are few, for guards are dirty."
"The guards are? Oh, because they deal with 'unclean' people!" Levitt mock slapped herself on the head, making Temu chuckle.
"Your mind goes well." Temu praised her, then looked away to her partner who had just limped over, dusty and exhausted from another long day on station disassembly. The materials from the station were needed elsewhere, and would become the Dandelion's last cargo from this place. "Love Regan, you are scrubbed thin." Her face paled a little with concern. Regan looked quite terrible.
"Hey champ, siddown please, before you fall down!" Levitt hastily vacated her chair and grabbed a fresh mug of hot soup and a water canteen for her.
"Thanks, I don't know what's wrong with me." Regan rubbed her eyes and drank down most of the canteen.
"Dehydration for one thing. You're run off your feet, champ." Levitt answered quietly, her tone not giving away the fullness of her concern. Regan's eyes were fever-bright, and Levitt's augmented hearing could pick out a rattling wheeze each time the other woman took a breath. "I didn't used to be a ship's captain, you know," she added, smiling as Temu fetched up a damp, cool cloth to lay across the back of her lover's neck.
"I never thought so. You sound like you come from Tuv-Garan." Regan sighed with relief when Temu slipped an arm around her and readjusted the cool cloth again.
"I am indeed, but don't let anyone hear you call it that. The new name doesn't put anybody first or second, so people don't feel like they have to argue about it." Levitt smiled and seeing the other two women were relaxed, rolled up her sleeve and then splayed her fingers along the inside of Regan's left wrist with a practised hand. The mesh of sensors embedded just under the skin on the inside of her lower forearm confirmed what Levitt could already feel with her fingertips and hear with her ears. "I was a doctor there, could've stayed. They haven't quite finished extracting their heads from an awkward place about women though, so I shipped out. Can I run a diagnostic?"
"Yeah, you better. I'm –" Regan blushed, an alarming sight that made her fever flush stand out. "not sure I can get up."
"Oh champ, you've been sick awhile then. Too stubborn for your own good." Levitt scolded gently as she pulled a small spray bottle out of an elaborately divided pocket on the inside of her hefty flight jacket and used it to mist the end of Regan's thumb. Then she clasped her own thumb over it and took a deep breath. It always took a bit of concentration to allow the sampler to work, as well it should since it poked holes in people. Regan jumped at the pin prick, and almost immediately Levitt turned up her hand, revealing a small, silvery oval embedded under the skin of her own thumb. Spidery filaments ran from it to the sensors further up her arm.
"Don't you worry about picking up scary things from people?" Regan asked drowsily.
"Nope. I've got nano-augmentation of my immune system." Pulling up another chair, Levitt sat down again and pulled a small tablet from yet another pocket to read the analysis as it came out.
"Thought you said you were a doctor." suddenly Regan looked more alert.
"I am. Originally a military doctor. Served with distinction. Went back to medical school and became a full up doctor afterwards. I wanted to know more about really helping people, not just about putting soldiers back together enough so they could fight again." Levitt blew out a low whistle. "Definitely pneumonia, luckily one of the older strains. I've got medicine for that, antibiotic from a mushroom species people used to kill off at random because they thought it was ugly. We humans are kind of nuts, killing beings just because they aren't pretty."
"And in trade?" Temu interrupted, trying to keep her body language calm, even though the way Regan was leaning on her and obviously labouring to breathe was terrifying her.
"Nothing. I never charge for medical care. No reason to when you're captain of a ship." Levitt put away her tablet and stood up. "How about me and a couple of my crew help get you two back to your tent, champ? I don't think you're walking."
The gentle tapping at the door roused Temu from a light doze where she sat cross-legged beside Regan, whose fever had broken in the morning and stayed away all day, so she was sleeping peacefully. Setting aside the book she had been trying to read, Temu carefully disentangled her legs and rose to see who it was. To her pleasant surprise, it was Penelope and Tig with fresh, hot food and clean bedding.
"Some help?" Tig offered brightly, and Temu had to smile back.
"Yes, thank you. Please come in, there is tea. But first, please to leave your boots here in the vestibule." Temu held each of the other woman's burdens in turn while they took off their well-worn footgear. Then they followed her into the tent proper, gasping in wonder at the patterns and embroidery applied to every possible surface, or at least so it seemed.
"Such heavy fabric," Penelope commented thoughtfully. "you do not suffer rational pricing here?"
"No, no. There is no rational thing about keeping far too many sheeps." Seeing their baffled expressions, Temu chuckled. She kept forgetting sheep were still a problematic concept. Neither pets nor farm animals were kept in the tent city, it would be too hard on the sewage facilities and the water supply, so unless an animal showed up in the wild, they remained abstractions to a former city dweller. They were still talking sheep and nowhere close to connecting wool from the sheep with the tent's fabric when Regan resurfaced.
"Holy, there is some manner of party in my house." she croaked, looking around for water.
"Party?" Tig and Penelope asked in unison.
"Regan, you must not speak of things I must also explain!" Temu's tone didn't match the chiding words at all since she was too delighted to see her partner's fever hadn't returned. Levitt had told her when the fever stopped coming back in the evening, Regan was truly on the mend though she would still need medicine. It had been a long eight days.
"Sorry." Regan smiled and opted to fully respond to Temu's hug even though she wasn't properly dressed and there were strangers present. Propriety was senseless about people's feelings. Still, while she waited for Temu to pour her some tea Regan got herself propped up and straightened her shirt, realizing with a start it was a very new one. All the embroidery was unworn by use and washing, and its ties were pulled close already to cover her throat and chest. "I don't remember taking this shirt out."
"You did not." confirmed Temu, handing over a delicate glass tumbler set into a silver holder with a chased handle. She paused, gently pushing tendrils of damp hair behind Regan's ears. "I decided to – hedge my bets, yes?"
"Yes, but I don't think I –" Regan looked at her shirt again. Of course. She made a mental note to officially harangue the old ladies of her clan. Temu had so listened to every word they said! "Never mind, yes I do." For a few moments she and Temu simply sat together quietly, oblivious to Tig and Penelope, who didn't mind. It was such a revelation to see two people treat each other with physical affection. "The embroidery keeps evil out." Regan explained. "When it is unworn, it works all the better."
Penelope had her doubts about the efficacy of such things, but Tig looked fascinated. "You don't believe in such superstitions do you?" Penelope asked her.
"Penelope!" Tig was scandalized. "Regan understands our language! I don't think it's a superstition at all. Even if it was just ordinary thread it would be meaningful, because that work is all done by hand."
"What do you mean if it was ordinary thread?" Penelope tried to peer at the embroidery on Regan's shirt subtly, which made her eyes hurt and little sparks jump in her field of vision.
"Oh do stop that! I've been learning about it in the apothecary's block. The thread is specially treated with chemicals, it's not just thread. Not that I quite understand what it does yet. So far I have found it conducts electricity without getting hot or vaporizing. And if I hadn't connected a loop of it to a battery I would not have believed it. Mind you, it doesn't carry much electricity." Tig sipped her tea, enjoying the spiciness of it.
"So they've created some reality to hang pre-existing superstitions on, lovely." Penelope commented drily.
"At least we know what we're doing." Regan put in, using her partner's language and making Tig and Penelope blush. "What is happening with the Dandelion?"
In spite of obstacles, a great deal was happening with the Dandelion. The repaired hull had been lovingly burnished and then refinished by Levitt and two other members of her crew, for one thing. Some tent dwellers sneered at what they thought was mere "making things pretty." They didn't realize the work was as much about making the ship able to fly again as making it look good, and Levitt felt no compulsion to explain it. After so much hard work and suffering so much verbal abuse from the few tent dwellers still hanging around who weren't actually helping, the only compulsion Levitt felt on the subject was one related to punching out people with big mouths. She only had to do this a few times before the wary began to studiously avoid her terrible fists, and Levitt had picked up a new nickname, Hammerhand. She liked it. So did her crew.
The innermost foils were reattached, the power lines welded back together and the voltage tested. Then a couple of the crane operators used a reassembled crane from the station to lift the weight of the Dandelion off the makeshift platform holding it level. At last, Levitt watched the others draw lots to see who would work the skeleton crew for powering the foils back up. Before passing out the lots, they had already agreed Levitt should always be on the start up crews and refused to be persuaded otherwise. They were a tight knit crew and she was a good captain. It showed.
All together, they walked in procession back into the Dandelion, slipping away from the gangway to their various positions in solemn silence. Humans knew how to manage plasmas now, but regenerating and releasing plasma back into the coils was the most dangerous part of it. Nobody cracked a joke or horsed around during that job. Outside, almost everyone else left at the site had gathered around at what they hoped was a safe distance to watch, except of course for Regan and Temu.
Sitting quietly at the ignition station, Levitt listened to the call signs, confirmations and cross-checks over her headset. If the members of the skeleton crew were in any way rusty, nothing in their work now showed it. The check sequence was done. One more quick spray of the fluid lines to check for leaks, then they were purged of air. Levitt seated her head set fully over her ears, then tightened the strap, listening in fascination as outside noise vanished with a 'ssswwwiiip' sound, close cousin to a pop. She jiggled her goggles up and down a bit. Probably not necessary at all, the goggles. She wore them anyway. "Ignition count down." Levitt intoned into her head set, heard the tinny repeat as Mikey echoed the words through the Dandelion's outside speakers. Chuckled at the sight of some tent dwellers backing up even further. Well, they were going to be in for a light show and no mistake. Levitt hadn't timed this for dusk for nothing. She didn't need to listen to the countdown. Instead, she shut her eyes and let the sound of her heartbeat fill her ears, counting the beats until she brought her thumb down firmly on the ignition button and smoothly pulled back the valve lever.
For a moment there seemed to be utter silence. Then a gentle buzzing of feedback in her headset, then a crackling. Then, at last, the bare vibration of the Dandelion at rest rose up into a proper pulse again and outside, the foils began to light up and stretch out like great fronds of vegetation. They shifted colour from a muted glowing green to a shining electric blue, to a brilliant turquoise. At the turquoise, the fibres stood up in the electro-magnetic field, and the Dandelion rose up off the crane hoist until the end of the gangway was four feet from the ground. The Dandelion's crew inside and out of the ship began whooping and hollering with excitement, even as they hurried to fix the Dandelion's anchors at long last and extend the full gangway to the ground. Unbelievably, the stevedores began a merry circle dance, even though they most of all must have appreciated a long vacation from their loading duties.
"You didn't bother listening to the countdown, did you captain?" Mikey asked from the doorway of the ignition room.
"You know I don't need to, Mikey. Don't make me have Lug shoot you." Mikey was less than comfortable with Levitt's augmentations.
"Yeah, yeah. Take it easy." Mikey held up his hands in surrender. "I don't think it'll ever sit totally well with me. These plasmas aren't tinker toys."
"No indeed. Tinker toys can't fly. And they suck." Beaming, Levitt bounced out of the ignition room, laughing in undisguised delight as the newly buoyant floor gave her some extra lift. She loved her ship, every ridiculous chunk and hose of it. "Let's get back to the foils Mikey. We've got three more layers to reassemble, and unless I very much miss my guess, some of those tent dwellers are going to come running back to get in on the fun."
Levitt was right. Still less than forty-four people, yet still enough to have a decent amount of work done in less than four of weeks instead of six. They were down to the outermost foils, and the crew was getting more excited every day. The stevedores had much of the cargo already loaded and spent most of their time on the final stages of the station dismantlement.
"I don't regret missing that wretched job, though I wish I hadn't gotten sick." sighed Regan, glad this didn't make her cough.
"There is still much of the station underground." Temu objected.
"This is true. I examined this myself, with Squiddy." Tig agreed. "There is a cover on it now. Squiddy said to me it shall be a place to gather water."
"We have need of more fresh water here. That's a good idea." Regan commented thoughtfully. "The river is still too sick to drink."
A pile of debris shifted restlessly in the wind, hunched against a collection bin turned on its side. Regan gazed at both the debris and the bin in some confusion, wondering what had happened to knock the bin over, spilling its contents. She strode over to it and with an effort pushed the bin back upright, wincing at how hard it was to do it. The illness had definitely taken a round out of her. Thankfully the debris was light, and she pitched into the bin quickly, dusted her hands, and continued her walk.
The season was turning, and the few weeks of rain before the heavy winter set in had brought the quick plants out in a riot of strange colours. An escaped genetic experiment, once escaped into the wild the quick plants took over the niches of several flowering plants decimated by a different genetic experiment. Thankfully the quick plants weren't poisonous, and they somehow made it easier for the remaining local vegetation to reseed cleared ground. They were doing just that, following in a slow wave after the short-lived quick plants, erasing the signs of the former tent city, this time for good. Regan strode the former Bookmaker's block, where old timers insistently ran wagers on races and sports events, tracking the results using relays of short wave radios. The whole thing had struck Regan as absurd, especially the short wave radios. It kept the old timers happy though, and they had rigged their own solar panels to power their gear. When they weren't running bets, they took care of the internal combustion vehicles, rare balky old things not so different from their caretakers.
Here now was the sight Regan had risked a longish walk for.
The Dandelion, now surrounded by three sets of charged and gently glowing foils, the fourth layer partially collected and leaning precariously to one side as a result. Regan easily picked out Temu's sturdy form strapped in a climbing harness and working on sealing in connectors along the side of the ship. She wondered idly where Tig and Penelope were, then changed course to intercept Levitt. She needed to haggle. "Captain!"
"Hey champ, good to see you." Levitt smiled, continuing to work her recently healed arm with the help of a chunk of rubber elastic retrieved from supplies on the Dandelion.
"How's the arm?" Regan motioned with her chin, and conceded to herself that she didn't mind Levitt's nickname for her, though she didn't understand what it meant or recognize the language it was from. She felt reasonably sure it wasn't rude. Levitt wasn't that sort of person.
"Not too bad. It won't be a hundred percent for awhile yet, but I can use it and it doesn't ache too much when it rains." Carefully removing the elastic and tucking it into another voluminous pocket, Levitt's expression sharpened. "You have the look of one who would haggle."
Ah hah. This one knew more about her people than most. "Not too much. My patience is thin for such things." Regan replied, unconsciously slipping closer to the idiom of her own language. "You have space for passengers."
"As you know," Levitt agreed. "not free space."
"No," Regan agreed in her turn. "What frees the space for you?"
"Hmmm," Levitt frowned. "Where is it you want to go?"
"No way! Seriously? It's cold there!"
"It has good weather. Like home." Regan answered, feeling homesick already.
"You planning to stay there long?" Levitt already knew the answer, she thought. Still, Regan wasn't quite like anybody else of her people Levitt had met.
"No, no plan. Nevertheless, Temu and I will be there for awhile. She disagrees with me about the weather."
"Have you told her about the Moving Ones?"
"What? No!" Regan laughed. "It is a surprise, she will love it. She will see at last the real version of the only ephemeral she ever liked!"
"Okay, wait. What's an ephemeral?" Levitt had listened to former city dweller discussions of these, feeling ever more bewildered by what she heard.
"This would be a long story. Perhaps I will tell it during the passage to Nenringard." Regan suggested slyly. Levitt laughed in her turn.
"Clever bastard. You've been watching me closely!"
"No more closely than you watch me." Regan replied evenly.
"Touché," Levitt sighed ruefully. "It's hard to ignore another augmented person. We're so uncommon now – and that's as it should be, don't get me wrong."
"I understand," Regan readjusted the bandana around her neck. "I have also become accustomed to keeping my nature to myself."
"You and your partner have a knack for rebuilding memory meshes. The Dandelion's are in a poor state as soon as you go beyond the engine room and the cockpit. If you're up for cleaning them up, I'll get you to Nenringard, and ferry you out too, when your time there is done." Levitt watched Regan's eyebrows shoot upwards. "Okay, okay, more than a knack. I've never seen work so fine without an ionizing tank."
"You don't have standard meshes," Regan's eyes brightened. Well, well. Levitt was serious, and a far better pirate than she had given her credit for.
"Absolutely not. What's the point of them? They're so energy inefficient they vapourize away, and to add insult to injury they're made of such substandard material the fumes would poison my crew." Levitt mentally crossed her fingers. Her offer was a bit low for what she was asking.
Regan knew the offer was not quite high enough. She didn't want to be ridiculous about it, though. She watched her partner, who was shifting to the next row of connections, running her hands along the foils as she moved. And there was the answer, of course. "My partner wants to understand the workings of your ship."
"She can get started on the trip to Nenringard, and I have connections there she'll need introductions to. I can work those up right away." That was satisfactory. They shook hands, and Regan looked up at her partner. "Come on, I'll show you around the ship and we'll walk out on the deck. Temu works fast, we'll meet her there."
Penelope systematically unpacked her carpet bag, laying out all the items for consideration. So many things, some of them quite useless Outside. That had been a calculated risk of taking them, of course. Setting the useless items aside for disassembly, Penelope began repacking the rest, pausing only when she got to the neat pile of clothing and the illegal paper guide to the city. She picked up the guidebook, flipping through the pages. This was how Tig found her.
"None of this is real." Penelope gestured at the book.
"What do you mean?" Tig asked. As it happened, she still hadn't gotten around to looking at the guidebook.
"The way the city is shown in this book, none of it is real. It never really hit me before, but it isn't." Seeing her friend's puzzled look, Penelope handed her the book. "Even in this illegal book, people tried to make the city the way they wished it was, the way they hoped it was where they never got to go."
The book had been printed on fairly coarse paper, and even so with obvious care. There were many illustrations, patiently hand-coloured. The pages it was opened to showed a bright and busy thoroughfare, full of bustling, smiling people. Around them were brightly lit buildings with colourful signs. Each building had a legible sign telling what it was: a toy store, a theatre. A library. Even a sports stadium. The picture showed a bit of the street people actually walked on as well, lined with trees and cobbled with bright red bricks. There was no sign of any metromaps, Black and Whites, or security cameras. People had their heads up, nobody wore a hat, or tinted glasses.
"Why isn't this picture real to you?" Tig asked. She didn't think it was real either. She had been assigned to her husband late, and so had worked in the recycling and garbage collection system longer than most. There were few parts of the city she hadn't seen while hooking up the vacuum truck to load human waste, or hauling bins of recycling to the collection cars. The shock when she realized the empty, grey places she saw were all there were, that the few people hurrying around with expressions of intense anxiety were the city dwellers, hadn't been as bad as her coworkers had expected. It had rolled over her in a sort of quiet wave, not of horror, but of relief. How else could she have felt, she wondered now. At that moment, she had realized she was one of the sane ones.
"Tig, this is supposed to be the street in front of the building where I used to live." Penelope let the book fall closed with a snap. "I feel angry. How dare they. How dare those – those –" she struggled silently. "There is no word foul enough for what I want to say of them. They claimed we were getting paradise, and what they built was a vast jail! They denied us life!" She half threw the book down. "I don't know what I want to do with this."
"You're wrong, about them denying us life." Tig said softly. "They tried. We lived anyway." She turned and dug around in her bag, which was half-pushed under her bunk. At last she extracted a bottle and what looked like a small box. "This is my recommendation for the book. It's your book though, it's up to you. I have made up my mind. When the Dandelion leaves, I will be on it."
Penelope stared at what Tig had handed her, turning the objects in her hands. "On the Dandelion? Where will you go?"
"I don't know. Somewhere far from here first, where it is bright and colourful and busy – for real." Tig gazed intensely into her friend's face. They had been arguing about this for several days. The Dandelion's last set of foils were connected and tomorrow was ignition day. By noon, the Dandelion would be coasting to cruise level on a heading for a place called T'vlis, then on to a much bigger place called Nenringard. Penelope wanted a new life somehow like her old one, a quiet engineering job in a small city where she could see people everyday and truly design and build things, not assemble and reassemble pre-built modules. Tig, Tig wanted to see the Outside, and have many adventures. Temu had been regaling her with stories – another point of argument with Penelope, who felt sure Temu made most of her tales up. She wouldn't believe it unless she saw it.
"I want a quiet, ordered life." Penelope insisted, slowly shaking her head. Fascinated by the contradiction between Penelope's body language and her words, Tig took a deep breath before answering.
"If that is really what you want, then I know you will achieve it. As for me, I guess it's time to transmit my message from the teletype shack."
"Your message?" Penelope asked blankly. Tig merely smiled, and handed her a slip of paper before leaving the tent on her errand. Fumbling the box, bottle and paper, Penelope finally dumped the larger items onto her bed and unfolded the slip of paper. It was a short missive in their language, with a rough translation into the tent city language underneath. Tig must have taken the final translation with her. The words of the message took Penelope's breath away.
"Desperate in 'Burbs, lonely housewife looking for relief from boring, humdrum life. All offers considered."
The Dandelion was in flying fettle, its final foils fully connected. The last few boxes and bags were being loaded, and the stevedores had chased the rest of the crew out of the cargo sections so they could work in peace. They would be working all night to lash the cargo down, shifting parts of it, readjusting it to get the mass perfectly even and firmly in place. Shifting cargos could destabilize the ship or shatter important conduits if left free to move or slip loose. They were taking off at dawn.
The rest of the crew bustled around in the rest of the ship, cleaning, making sure panels and storage doors were firmly shut. Levitt checked in on Temu and Regan, and thanked her stars for the buoyant floor that muffled footsteps when she got to their cabin. Rather than interrupt, Levitt gently closed the door and chuckled. She remembered such moments, before she had been widowed. Pulling her shoulders straight, Levitt firmly put the old memory aside. What was done was done. There had been a war on after all, and she couldn't have expected either of them to survive, let alone both of them together. They had their time. She walked on, wending her way to the top deck and the half-moon shaped cabin Tig had selected for herself.
The cabin was utterly transformed. Tig had taken to the barter economy of the tent city with gusto, acquiring beautiful and functional rugs that now adorned the walls and the floor. The wall space was more limited than average, because this cabin formed a snub protrusion with a curved window port extending three quarters of the way around it. In a pinch, it could be taken out of domestic service and used as a navigation station. There were a couple of bookshelves piled with Tig's paper books and idiosyncratic gadgets, and her new chemistry chest attached to the floor under her work table. The small bed was made up with what looked to Levitt like another rug, but probably wasn't.
"You've made yourself right at home." Levitt smiled.
"Yes, it is terribly exciting. Still it amazes me, that you bathe with water, even on this ship!" laughed Tig.
"So we do, though not too often on the ship if we can help it. We can't carry enough water for that. Your name is on the rota though, so you're set. I can't tell you how glad I am you're willing to stay on. It's hard work pulling triple duty, two jobs for everybody is plenty." Levitt's smile broadened and she handed over the folio she had been carrying under her arm. "Navigation 101."
"Excellent! Reading light, I love." warbled Tig.
"Light reading." Levitt corrected gently, laughing when Tig rolled her eyes. "It's not my fault your grammar is backwards!" Stretching her arms and wincing when her healed arm complained, Levitt turned to go but not before asking, "Do you think she'll come?"
"I'm not sure. She has not truly left the city." Tig ran one hand over the front cover of the folio, which was embossed.
"Some places are hard to leave." As she walked away, Levitt was sure the sound she heard corresponded to Tig hugging the folio against her chest.
Outside, Squiddy stood up in alarm. When he first saw it, he had thought for sure he had been half asleep. Then he saw it again, and a bit of light too. It looked just like a fire. Not a big fire. It had been raining. He chewed his lip. Trouble was, small fires made big fires, especially when nobody went and took care of them. Squiddy sighed, reluctant to crawl out of his sleeping bag. He got up anyway, shoving his feet into boots clammy with early dew, groaning through his teeth. Pulling on his wool cap and jacket, Squiddy jumped up and down twice and waved his arms to warm up, then headed for the unmistakable orange patch of flame at the far edge of the almost engulfed footprint of the tent city.
The fire was further away than he thought, and he cursed under his breath. "Knew I should have grabbed the hovercraft." Squiddy picked up his feet into a jog, surprised when the fire seemed to wink out, then flare up again. After another wink or two, he realized he must be seeing someone moving around it, probably tending it. "Good grief, who makes a wee bonfire on a night with no Moon?" Taking a breath he very nearly shouted out, but caught himself, clapping a hand over his own mouth. If he did that, the whole camp would be woken up, which wasn't necessary. He had stopped moving, and he noticed the person tending the fire had too. Could they have heard him after all? Squiddy hoped he hadn't scared them, whichever member of the camp it was. He started jogging again, then had to slow down as his steps took him off of the footpath and into hardier plants, what Regan referred to as anklebiters. Between that distraction and needing to slow down, by the time Squiddy got to the fire, the other person was gone.
A last few embers curled up and went out by Squiddy's feet. He held his hand carefully over the small, bare spot. Not much heat was radiating from it, so this couldn't have been a bonfire. Puzzled, Squiddy sat back on his haunches, and finally pulled his night goggles out of his pocket to have a real look around. Everybody had night goggles for working outside at night, and he was justifiably proud of his. He had found them broken, and figured out how to fix them. They were a bit crooked, and the only paint Squiddy had found to finish touching them up with was hot pink. They were awesome goggles, even Levitt said so, and she was hardcore.
Squiddy looked around slowly, not letting himself be distracted by the bright spot in front of him where the little fire had been. Slowly, yet still almost too fast. He caught sight of the person out of the corner of his eye, and moved quickly to see them better. Well, whoever it was knew where they were going, moving with a steady, almost clockwork, ground eating stride straight back to camp. "This is so weird." sighed Squiddy. "Well, at least nobody can say I didn't get my butt out of bed and make sure things were okay. Anyways," he pushed his goggles up and glanced up, marking the stars and calculating the hour. "It's close enough to dawn to count."
The horizon began turning pallid grey as Penelope watched, sitting wrapped in her big sweater, carpet bag packed up beside her. Some of her gear seemed to have wandered off with the buggy, which vexed her a little. Luckily in less than an hour people would start getting up, and then Penelope could get some assistance tracking it down. She had a ride lined up with some of the other former city dwellers, and they were heading for a seaside city where she could find work in her field. They had reassured her on this point, as her language skills were coming along well, and people who could work independent of the guidebooks were in high demand. Pretty soon, she would be back to something like her normal life. Her normal life.
Straight ahead of her, the Dandelion began to wake up. The ship's crew had been sleeping in their regular cabins on ship ever since it had been righted, and now lights began to wink on behind solid windows. Penelope could just hear the gentle clinking and thunking of the ship's cook, working alongside the remaining camp cook one last time. The rich smells of cooking food and spicy black tea began to reach Penelope where she sat, and her mouth watered. The food was incredible Outside. Almost nothing came out of a sealed package, most foods included gravies or sauces and were eaten with the fingers. It was almost too much stimulus to bear at times. While Penelope struggled not to feel overwhelmed, Tig was thriving. The grey under-pallor endemic to even women city dwellers had left her, her wan cheeks had filled out, and her eyes were bright and merry. The grittiest, hardest work Penelope had ever witnessed a woman do didn't phase Tig at all, and Penelope now suspected Tig had worked on garbage detail in the city.
Breakfast smelled wonderful, but Penelope wasn't hungry. Instead of going to join the others, she sat quietly after pulling her sweater on properly, enjoying the sound of the camp being picked up by people working together reasonably harmoniously. It was a wonder to her, to hear people speak to each other for any reason other than work. Finally, she got up, slung her carpet bag on her shoulder, and began walking towards the caravan that would take her to the seaside city. Olia, she thought it was called.
"Ignition countdown." the announcement echoed out over the plains, and now Penelope could see the caravan was full, Squiddy was standing by his hovercraft, and there was no sign of anybody else. The Dandelion crew were all aboard, with her friend Tig and her newer friends Temu and Regan besides. To her surprise, the countdown started from much higher than the previous foil ignitions. The second set of foils began to rotate slowly while the foils just inside and just outside of it began to light up. A light breeze picked up, dishevelling Penelope's hair. Two crew members from the Dandelion came out on the gangplank and began the process of retracting it. They stepped back from the cargo doors, evidently getting ready to close those too.
It was time to go back to an ordered life. Penelope picked up her bag, realising with a start that her eyes were streaming with tears.
Strangely, one of the crew members was jumping down from the Dandelion, the countdown echoing all around them. Who was that lunatic?
"Well, come on, what are you waiting for? Let's go!" Tig shouted at her, waving madly.
For a moment, Penelope was frozen. But not for long. Penelope Lemon was a person of great decision and precision. She hefted her bag onto her shoulder, and began to run as best as she could, but knowing in her heart she couldn't make it. Nearly colliding with Tig she gasped out, "Are you crazy, you're going to miss your ship!"
Tig didn't answer. Instead she took Penelope's bag and slung it across her body. Then she grabbed her friend's hand, and they ran.
The ignition countdown finished, and at last the Dandelion glowed in all her splendour, a brilliant curved net of light with a central glowing mass that looked like nothing so much as a great whale. It began to lift move away and upwards. Penelope's heart leapt into her throat, feeling her legs begin the awful twitching sequence that came with their exhaustion. For her part, Tig never slowed down and never hesitated, she had worked in garbage detail many years. No woman did that without gaining the strength and coordination to leap onto moving vehicles while carrying heavy loads. Penelope had lifted her out of the city. Now Tig was going to lift her friend into the sky.
Almost before Penelope understood what was happening, her carpet bag was flying up and ahead of her, into the arms of the other crew member, ironically the young man with the idiot hair cut. He caught the bag solidly against his chest and took it inside. Then Tig shouted, "Come on, hold onto me!" and wrapping an arm around Penelope's shoulders, she took a great leap.
Unbelievably, they landed on the edge of the still half-extended gangplank and two more crew members dragged them inside and slammed the cargo hold shut. "You city dwellers are fruitcakes." sniped the young man with the idiot haircut.
Tig and Penelope ignored him, watching the ground drop away from them in awe, hearing the shifting sound of the engines and the thrumming pulse of the ship. It was time to have a serious look around the Big Room.
- The End