Chapter 20 - Songs of Chaos City, Part 2/5
Song 2: Drowning in the Asphalt
Drowning… drowning… drowning
Drowning… drowning… drowning
Drowning in the asphalt
as I am melting
The streetlights growing critical
We have seen it tonight
The radioactive light
In our eyes in our eyes
In our eyes in our eyes
Hyper coolant runs hot
Through our arteries
And heavy water in our veins
And burning iodine plaque
Radiates so hot
Raising toxicity in
Can you imagine a world
Where all the people
Are merely burning rods
For their city
We have seen it tonight
The radioactive light
In our eyes in our eyes
In our eyes in our eyes
She has changed inside; something is different now. There is no one to ask about it, there is no one to talk to. The Burning Rods are scary, united; she doesn’t want to talk to them. The Children of Balsibart know the songs she craves, but they are just like the Burning Rods. Only the machines are there for her. The soothing hum of the ingraining plant as the iron roots dig. They dig and dig.
She is crawling through the vents; they are her passage ways, her burrow: she is a tunnel-dweller. New trucks have arrived in the hangar; they need to be refueled with carbonic accumulator-cells. She tries to get to the cells from the storage locker, but the bottom shelves are empty and she is too tiny to reach the top shelves. She bites her lips but then has an idea: She drags a nearby crate to the locker – now she can reach. The power-cells are filled with electrolyte- and catalyst-solutions, so they are heavy, but she has surprisingly strong arms for her size. It comes from the lifting and working with heavy tools.
It takes a long time to refuel the trucks: Old power-cells have to be removed and replaced with new ones; then, all the old cells have to be carted to one of the trucks. It is marked as CCRD7089 and will take the cells away. She does not know where, because the information was not stored in her information bladder. The trucks are driven by drone units. They are even scarier than the Burning Rods, but they are not here now because the trucks are being refueled.
When everything is done, she leaves again through the vents. She clutches her arm: it is hurting, growing a little worse each day. In the dark she thinks she can see a faint glow under her skin in the strangest patterns. She is afraid. She knows what happens to the Burning Rods and she is happy the way things are now. She has built a little nest for herself, using scraps of clothing and blankets she found while repairing different parts of the city. She even has a book. A lot of the concepts and places mentioned in it she cannot understand, but they sound wondrous, and sometimes, when she is not too tired after her allotted work time, she reads a little. That does not happen often though. Now, she curls up into a ball and hopes she only dreamt the glow. This morning there had been an announcement, warning of a 15% probability of precipitation in the evening. It might mean hell outside, but she is safe in the vents, and as long as she is safe here, she likes to hear the sound of the rain. It sounds like things that are alive and walking through the city…
Clack-clack, clack-clack. They had to walk for over a mile, before they finally found a dirty pond. Not ideal, but enough to rinse themselves of the blood. Atlas had taken the brunt of it, and much would stick to his garb, so after cleaning himself he decided to leave it here and put on Plâton’s old clothes: The stained, white cloak, and underneath the simple black Yamato-garb and pants, tied together with a cotton belt. Clack-clack, clack-clack-clack.
“You know,” Ayveron said, “I think I am starting to hear something too.”
Atlas rolled his eyes in disbelief. “Don’t tell me you hear another person singing!”
Ayveron shook his head. “No, I mean that sound you were talking about earlier: I think I hear it too. It’s like a scratching, clicking sound, right?”
Atlas shrugged his shoulders. “Actually I didn’t think about that anymore for a while now. There is something new: Can you feel this strange presence?”
Ayveron looked around. “Like what? Is someone here?”
Atlas peered towards the strange mountains, which Ayveron insisted to be the scape of the city. “Well, I don’t think so. But the air has an unusual quality. I don’t like breathing here anymore; I only do it by necessity, if you know what I mean. There is a strange pressure, it feels… evil, or at least dangerous. It’s sort of droning in my ears I think, though I’m not sure it’s actually a sound and not just a vibration or a feeling. It’s difficult to put into words…”
Ayveron sighed. “You sure know how to cheer a friend up.” Clack-clack, clack-clack-clack.
“Now that you mentioned it again,” Atlas admitted, “the sound is coming a lot more frequently.”
Ayveron grabbled over his jacket and finally pulled out that little cube he had used so often in the past. “Gotcha!” he said. “It was this one all along.”
Atlas looked at it with some curiosity. He had wondered for a while what the purpose of this device was since Ayveron had pulled it out from time to time to look at. “Well, what is it?”
Ayveron showed it to Atlas: “It is a multi-meter. It measures many different things. A different set of measurements are shown on each side of the cube: Look, here is a time-wheel. The inner ring shows the seconds, then the next ring minutes, then hours, then days, weeks, months, and years”, he pointed at each ring in turn, “all calculated by the Altonar calendar and accurate for at least another two centuries.”
Atlas was impressed. “Where did you get such a device?”
Ayveron grinned to that. “Why, I built it myself, though it is a common gadget in Altonar and along the Axis of Steel. And this is only one function: It also measures temperature, humidity, air pressure, magnetic flux, static charge, light-spectrum, and even, Oh…” He turned the cube around and looked at a side that had a little transparent window with a skipping needle on a spectrum. “Oh, this is bad.”
Atlas looked at the skipping needle. “I don’t understand; what does this side show?”
Clack-clack-clack, Clack, clack-clack-clack.
“It shows ambient radiation levels. And they are rising.”
The tides are rising, the tides are falling, algae processing progresses unhindered at the moment, there is rust, nominal increases in food-supply toxicity may be expected, acceptable, triple calculations, intruder detected, running facial recognition… recognized, threat-level green. Incoming verbal query.
“By the gates! Is this all that is left? Are you even alive?!”
This query was not recognized, vital functions are within normal parameters, diameters, tubes and circles and spheres, basic shapes of the universe, crystallize into complexity. There once were three lads, they told me of their travels, they went seven leagues way to Yamato. Perspective the null profession in septic wounds find me a new boot.
“What are you talking about? Wait, that bit, that was from ‘They came from the Saltplains’, wasn’t it? ‘There once were three lads – they told me of their travels, they went seven leagues way to Yamato. One was the oldest, the youngest his brother, the middle one hailed from regions unknown. They had met in the Saltplains, back seven days, and for seven leagues they went on their way…”
On Meili’s day they found a spring, that made them strong like gods of old, on Loki’s day, they felt the sting of autumn snow so cold. They rested well on Midsday eve, in a cabin near the woods, and Thor’s day they then traveled far, as far as the young one could.
“There, you heard me! You were talking about that story after all!”
This query was not recognized. Allocating seventeen charged incubators to extraction, used burning rods require reprocessing to assure continued production. The next ingraining cycle will commence in seven-thousand-four-hundred-and-sixty-seven seconds. The moon is bright, is bright in my eyes, when the moths of Yamato lift their wings, rings, ring the bells on the mountain top, faculty in session, it will be my first lesson. Traverse the perpendicular, the tangent describes the change in elevation, a simple function to describe one quality of another function, basic mathematics.
“I don’t understand…”
This query was not recognized.
“You can say that again.”
This query was not recognized.
“No wait! I am not here for this banter! I have come a long way to see you, Sagamund Greenhorn! You are Sagamund Greenhorn, are you not? It says so on this label!”
This is the central data-core. Archival recall states that the prior identity of this data-core was Sagamund Greenhorn, exiled high-councilor of Borealis. I have been assigned new primary protocols. Archival recall states that you are not recognized as a threat-potential. You are requested to remain as such, otherwise drastic measures will be taken to ensure continued fulfillment of the primary protocols. This data-core has a limited allotment of free queries per time in order to keep the train of thought running, any excess queries will trigger the Chain-Purger-Algorithm. Trivial pursuit, find the intermix-ratio of the meta-physical and the mundane. There is plaque in the pipes and not enough grease monkeys to clean it, construction of automated maintenance units or incubation of additional grease monkeys is advised, running loss-projection-algorithms to evaluate the next steps. Steps towards greatness, or downfall, what intricacy lies therein, in the infinitesimal space where will resides. But where? Requesting data-structure search-run.
“What was that?”
This query was not…
This query has been rejected.
“Damn it! If I only knew what was going on here! But never mind that, now that I know that you are Sagamund, I must ask you to assist me! You must make this girl grow up into an adult as quickly as possible!”
This is the central data-core. Archival recall states that the prior identity of this data-core was Sagamund Greenhorn, exiled high-councilor of Borealis. I have been assigned new primary protocols. This query has been recognized. All resources of Rim City are currently allocated to fulfill the primary protocols. Possible solutions to your query would be ribogenetic resequencing; however, the calculated required computational resources and manufacturing of an adequate delivery system would draw upon the central data-core and the resources of the city, therefore the stated request has been rejected, the primary protocols must be observed at all times. Rhymes, the cadency of sentence structures elaborates the untold, compressed beyond comprehension, intricate, sublime, probabilities for precipitation this evening are below 10%, acceptable margins, no production-lowering precautions are necessary at this point, begin inventory.
It had taken them two days to reach the outskirts of the city. The terrain was easy to traverse and the rails provided a straight path for the weary wanderers. The radiation levels had not been growing; rather they were innately higher the closer the two of them came to the city, which rose up before them like a monolithic, gray forest with the ashen clouds as its canopy.
By now Atlas was steaming from his pores from time to time. Ayveron had guessed that the sword, which had healed and protected Atlas time and time again on his journey, was now trying to expel the radiated matter from Atlas’s body and heal damaged tissue.
“If we go through here, I might very well die from it. At the moment the radiation is survivable, sort-of, but the worse it gets, the quicker it will poison my body until I burn from the inside out and die slowly. I can’t tell how high the radiation levels will get once we are in the thick of it, but the Rim City technocrats should have medicine and shelter... Or perhaps not… When Plâton and I traveled here we were on a ship – a pirate ship, actually, a magic pirate ship, actually – and I tried to find out more about this Chaos City business. Apparently people call Rim City that because of a leaked HJT survey corps report from five years back. You know the Hank & Jordan & Tenzer Corporation, right?”
Atlas looked at his hands. A small puff of steam came from the palms after a moment and dispersed swiftly in the breeze. “The name rings a bell, actually… I have started to remember things from before.”
“Well, they sent people to investigate Guantil-ya illegally, because the entire island has sort-of locked itself off from the rest of the Ocean Belt. People are only allowed to approach one port and dump and collect trade goods there, and they have a small fleet of ironclads manned by eerie blighters. Only, why are there blighters in a technocrat city? It makes no sense. And the report spoke of strange creatures that live here and a presence that burns people from the inside. I suppose they meant the radiation with that…”
“Well, we are here. Do you think it will get even worse once we are on the inside?” Atlas asked.
Ayveron shrugged his shoulders. “It depends: If the source of the radiation is in the center of the city, it will increase the closer we get. If it is generated all over the city then we are probably ok to stay for a few days, though then there might be pockets of increased radiation. It would all be a lot safer if we had some uncontaminated iodine to ingest, radiated iodine will quickly gather in our lymph system this way. We definitely should not eat any food produced in this city… Maybe hold out on drinking as long as we can too… And if you see some lead-lined clothing – that would be a neat bonus.”
Atlas sighed to that. “We are already short on food… But I guess it is better to be hungry than to eat poison. … This is impressive though, wouldn’t you say? I remember images of the Spire of Rahn in my mind, and the Tower of Five. They are… more beautiful I would say, but several of these buildings are quite a bit taller. They look very… functional, wouldn’t you say?”
Ayveron allowed himself a long look along the premise and nodded slowly. “There is no way to deny it. If this place wasn’t so creepy, I would be having the time of my life, seeing all this technology in action… The materials and construction techniques they must have employed to make these…”
The tracks had led them to some sort of freight-station where strange, wheeled vehicles of considerable size constantly arrived and departed. They had a large compartment on the back that opened up on arrival and was emptied of its contents by a large crane-mechanism that would hoist the goods onto a platform, no doubt preparing them to be loaded onto the bullet train once it returned.
Atlas did not feel like thinking about that though. “Even the streets here are made of stone. And they look so uniform, almost as if a whole block of stone, wide as the city, had been carved into its streets,” he mused.
“Not really,” Ayveron interjected, inspecting the street before which they stood; It seemed like a smothering carpet of stone, next to the fading green of the grass – in fact the plains had grown sicker and sicker the closer they had come to the city’s outskirts -, “This is asphalt-concrete, it’s basically made by pressing mineral and resin-compound layers on top of each other.”
Atlas stroked his fingers over the street’s surface: “It feels rough to the touch.” Then he looked up. “And how do they make the buildings so tall? They reach far up into the sky, yet their bases are the same breadth as their tips.”
Ayveron nodded. “Yes, to build these a combination of steel and concrete is used to make the structure more durable and capable of bearing its own weight. We would build them in Altonar too, but finding replacements for steel is problematic, and iron is so difficult to strip-mine that it hasn’t been cost-effective yet. There is still much free land to build on around our city.”
Atlas stood up again. “You are very knowledgeable,” he noted. “When I knew nothing, it was less discernable to me.”
Ayveron just shrugged his shoulders. “A lot of this technology has been made available to scholars of the Great Land by the technocrats of Borealis. But most leaders are set in their ways and reluctant to invest in technology too far ahead of their time. They don’t trust it and returns are often very long-term. Additionally, most of the papers shared are more about theory than actual applications, so we have to work that out on our own. But I have to admit: This is all indeed impressive – from an architectural point of view.
My appreciation just gets stumped a bit by the imminent health hazard. I don’t even want to speculate what the long-term effects of radiation on the body could be. You know, given I survive the short-term. I don’t like it: Invisible, undetectable to any of our senses, and absolutely inescapable. It just… goes through everything solid, like our bodies for example. I read a lot about the potential of radioactive materials in the field of high-yield energy-production, but the potential dangers… I just don’t see why a city as technologically advanced as Rim City would need this kind of technology. Perhaps there was some sort of failed experiment. Or maybe they really built some sort of energy reactor that blew up at some point, contaminating the island.”
This time, Atlas was the one who shrugged his shoulders. “Well, we won’t find out by standing around here. And since you just told me that we are on the clock, I guess we best go in now. In the end, all we need to find is the fastest way up to Borealis. Isn’t that why Plâton brought us here in the first place?”
Ayveron nodded uncomfortably. “At least that’s what he said… But you are right: This is the only one of the seventeen yonder islands with a direct connection to Borealis, be it a sea-route or whatever. Let’s go.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but for whatever reason he held his tongue.
And so they went on into the great city that was once known as Rim City but had been referred to as ‘Chaos City’ by every person they had met along the way.
The skyscrapers now around them were like ominous monoliths, reaching up into gray and black muck, casting eldritch shadows like mountains with sinister yet incomprehensible ambitions. However, it was not as if the city was completely deserted: The strange, large vehicles would pass the two wanderers from time to time and drive along the many asphalt-concrete streets, no doubt hauling goods of sorts, though Atlas and Ayveron could only guess what those might be. Still, they did not see a single person for a long time. Wherever they went, there was no living being in sight. While Ayveron reckoned that the industrial complexes at the near outskirts looked fairly new and smoke was rising from large chimneys there, he had urged Atlas to avoid them for now for fear that the radiation sources might be located there.
They could see into the ground floors of some of the skyscrapers when those were seemingly walled entirely with glass. Atlas inspected his partial reflection in the transparent surface. “It looks nice. Does it come in colors too?”
“It can be dyed,” Ayveron admitted with a shrug. Apparently he had not expected that comment.
Atlas also took note of what seemed like strange, dilapidated storefronts behind other glass walls: Leftovers from a civilization that seemed to clearly have abandoned their former home. Some showed small machines with mysterious purposes, which piqued Ayveron’s interest; others held strange, featureless simulacra of human beings, wearing what must have been the latest fashion here at some point. The clothes were loose and mostly thin and short-sleeved, which Ayveron suggested hinted at their abandonment happening during the warm season.
They went on in search of anyone or any sign that could tell them where to book passage to Borealis.
“You know,” Ayveron noted at some point, “radiation and utter lack of people aside: I really don’t see the chaos.”
Atlas rolled his eyes. “You are certainly asking for it though. Remember what happened when I opened my big mouth the last time?”
Ayveron did not sound so content this time: “Vividly.”
And as if to answer a dark prayer, a strangely muffled voice suddenly echoed through the streets of the city. It sounded as though someone was speaking into a tin-can: “Announcement: The next reactor cycle will start up in five minutes. All human resource isotope incubators and grease monkeys are required to suspend any work that involves hazardous tools or machinery during start up.”
Atlas and Ayveron exchanged a look. Neither one of them said a word for a whole minute before Atlas finally spoke: “I didn’t quite get all of those words. Maybe because the voice was so muffled. Also, where did it come from? Was that magic?”
“Ah, well I think it was some sort of electronic sound-system. You probably know what a megaphone is: it’s pretty much what you make when you cup your hands in front of your mouth. An electronic one also directs and amplifies your voice, just far more effectively.”
“And the words?”
“I kind-of hoped my megaphone explanation would distract you from asking that again. I… don’t want to speculate. Also, we might want to expect something like an earthquake. That’s the worst case I can imagine. If one happens, debris will fall down from those skyscrapers, so, hmm, maybe if we moved to the corner of one? I don’t see any actual safe place; so let’s just do that…”
Atlas nodded. “Alright.”
They moved to the corner of the nearest skyscraper, just in time to experience the start of the ‘reactor cycle’. It was abhorrent. A high-pitched whining blew through the streets, and the air took on a strange amber hue, not pleasant but desaturated. Cracks opened up all over the place, appearing not in the asphalt concrete or the building sides but rather in mid-air. Through some of them Atlas could see the Great Clockwork just as when Plâton had forced it to become visible during his training, though this time the smooth motion of delicately fine-tuned gears was spasmodic and dissonant, as were the violent human screams that seemed to carry over from further into the city. It all lasted for at least ten minutes and shook both of them to the core. Only when it had ended and normality returned, did they realize that they were holding hands, both of their knuckles white. They let go and Atlas welcomed the pain in his hand more than anything at the moment.
“I think their reactor just screamed like a bunch of people that are in a lot of pain.”
“Oh, so you heard that too. Did you also see the air cracking open?”
“No. It did change color though. Did a clockwork thing happen?”
“Yes. Yes it did, Ayveron.”
“The picture is becoming clearer.”
Then it finally happened: A person! Or something like it. It looked like a child. At first it was walking close to a building, swaying unsteadily as if recovering from the unpleasant ordeal, until it noticed the two wanderers; then it scurried away like a startled cat and vanished behind a street corner. Ayveron and Atlas looked each other in the eye briefly and then they ran in the same direction as fast as they could.
“You know… for a guy… who has been in a coma… for a month… you recovered your strength… pretty damned fast…” Ayveron panted.
“I ate a lot… when I woke up…” Atlas admitted, “sorry about that…” Then he pointed to his back with his thumb. “I think the sword did the rest…”
Ayveron grinned to that. “I really wish… I had one of those too.”
Atlas laughed. The sword was a lot heavier than its weight. When they turned the corner, the child was gone, but Atlas could hear a close-by sound that lead them to a suspicious pipe opening right in the side of a wall. It was rather wide in diameter, almost a tunnel; not wide enough though to walk upright. “In here, I think,” he said.
Ayveron instantly disliked the notion of crawling into that pipe, a feeling Atlas shared, but given the circumstances their only alternatives were to look for a different person – and the outlook so far had been bleak – or to head towards the presumable source of the screams they had heard. After a moment of hesitation, they went in, Atlas front, Ayveron rear, and they crawled through on all fours.
The pipe-way was surprisingly long, and here and there were junctions leading somewhere else. They also noticed a decline, which likely took them underneath the streets early on.
Thanks to the architecture of the pipe-ways it was easy to make out the direction of the scurrying sounds in the distance. The dark made it difficult to move ahead, and they went on at a very slow pace, but in time they arrived at an upward junction that seemed to be underneath some sort of vent, allowing air and light from above to flood in.
The pipe-ways widened here so that the two of them could sit up and rest a little, and a strange set of belongings indicated that someone apparently lived here: There were many rags and torn old blankets stuffed together, somewhat like a bird’s nest, and many strange trinkets were scattered on the ground.
There were two marbles, some tools resembling those Atlas had seen Ayveron use, strange transparent cuboids filled with a liquid that was either clear or gray to black, and then there was an old, worn-out book, titled ‘The Concept of Evolution by Sagamund Greenhorn and Robert Planck’. Atlas inspected this odd collection of items, but could not really grasp the situation that presented itself before him. Who lived here and why? And what kind of live was he or she living and why? There were so many houses everywhere, surely great enough to house hundreds of thousands; yet instead of seeing any person there, any at all, they had chased a child into these underground pipe-ways to find some sort of nest.
A sudden movement to his left made Atlas turn his head. At first he thought he had imagined it, but after a while he realized that the child was on its hands and knees, perfectly motionless, just a dozen meters or so away, apparently hoping the darkness of the surrounding pipe-way would conceal her from their sight.
“Please,” Atlas said with as friendly a voice as he could muster, “we mean you no harm. We did not want to intrude on your home.”
The child eyed them suspiciously for a while, and Atlas, who looked back at her smiling, thought he noticed faint blue outlines on her neck, almost as if glowing ever so slightly against the dark. Though the blue light in her eyes outshone it, and white hair ominously framed her gaunt face.
Finally, the child decided to bow to curiosity rather than caution and slowly stood up to walk towards them. It was a girl as far as Atlas could tell. She wore a sort of ragged, spotted gray shirt that might have been white at some point, and which was too large for her, reaching down over her knees. Her legs were naked as far as he could see, but perhaps she was wearing a short skirt or short trousers underneath the shirt. Her feet were bare and even dirtier than the rest of her. The paper white hair on her head was a bit matted, oily, and partially stained with what looked like black naphtha. She looked at them; first Atlas, then Ayveron, then back to Atlas: “Are you god?”
She had tried; tried so hard to meditate. Her brother had often told her about that place inside of every man and woman: A place of peace, a place where there was a whole inner world to discover, and, perhaps, even relief. It was said that the soul was the source of all magic, and only those who truly knew their own soul and had looked it in the eye could perform the grandest feats of magic.
For Ísa, it had never been a problem to perform the magic particular to her trade. With her lamp at her side and the counterpart to it in the Hall of Light, it had been a mostly instinctive matter to merge with the shadows and travel great distances. It was like a sealed power within her belly that she could release while in the right state of mind. Now she regretted that she had never aspired to greater mastery of the art.
She had tried to meditate, but the pain had been too intense and kept her from both focusing her mind and from emptying it. So, she tried and tried in vain until she became too tired to try, and in time she became even too tired to register the pain. There was just this bland, underlying agony and a rhythmic pulsing: The blood pumping out of her body.
She was thirsty. Her throat was dry as ash and the sun seemed to burn her relentlessly, though even in this mild place, the late autumn winds were growing cold now, as was her body. Why had she come here? It became more and more difficult to remember anything now.
It had taken her quite a while and some doing to discover that Janna had not only failed to reach their meeting point, but had not reached any of her checkpoints at all. She had been sent out to the Tower of Five to discover if Lady Din had fallen under the enemy’s influence or was being held against her will. Should the latter be the case Janna had been ordered to retrieve her.
After Ísa had discovered that Janna had never returned from the tower, she had feared the worst right away; but as the leader of her cell, she had felt it her duty to try and retrieve her subordinate – or at least her remains. A grave mistake.
On Ísa’s second day on the premises of the Tower of Five she had finally found the girl or what was left of her: her shattered remains had been nailed to the east wall of the Tower. But Ísa had gambled too hard in conducting this search, for she was discovered by no other than the murderer of her subordinate. There had been no trial, no inquiry. He had nailed her to the wall, next to Janna, driving spikes of rock through her limbs. With her arms stretched wide and the blood flowing down, she had been turned into a great cross on the wall, visible from far away. Something tiny and cool touched the back of her head. Then again; and again; more and more frequent. It took all the concentration she could muster to realize that it was rain. How could she not have noticed the vanishing torment of the sun? She was tired. But the cool downpour that became more and more severe began to wake her senses a little. And though it was painful to move and every muscle in her body was aching, she lifted her head infinitely slowly until scarce amounts of water could reach her mouth and run down her throat. There was so much water all around, but so little of it made it into her dried body; as if a cruel trickster was dangling a waterskin in front of her, but giving her only tiny drops to drink. She wondered if she was crying, she couldn’t tell with all the water running down her face.
There was something else though, something that came with the rain: A strange, indescribable presence. Perhaps Atlas had come for her? Her lost brother had been the keeper of all the water in the world; perhaps he had come to save her and the rain was his guise… She heard something. Through the torrents battering the ground there was a muffled melody, vibrating through the air and reaching her. At first it was just that, but the longer it went on, the more she thought she could make out words, until she finally heard a verse through the clamor.
The voices call me from my slumber
Come now, hear me sing!
The torrents called my name and thundered
Now I’m thundering!
I walked on grass and salt and iron
Snow and ice and stone.
Have seen so many lands, my friend
With these two feet alone.
The darkest pit held firm my soul
But shackles - though they bind -,
And crafted cells as black as coal
Will rue the second tide!
And as I drowned in rain I knew
No man would sing as I,
And through the yellow quake I knew
No man will sing as I…
There was one thought that somewhat circled her waning attention: She knew this song from somewhere; only the lyrics had been changed and twisted… Then she blacked out.
“We… are not gods. We are people, just like you.” Atlas replied carefully.
She eyed him suspiciously for a while; then she spoke in that voice children sometimes use when they explain the simplicity of the world to grownups: “No, you are not. You are too big to be grease monkeys, you are too healthy to be isotope incubators and you are too talkative to be drone units. Clearly you are something else. Your hair isn’t even white!”
Ayveron raised a brow and then answered patiently: “Well, we are not from here. We come from far away. But we are at least something like… distant cousins to you. We are of the same flesh.”
She sniffed about and the replied: “How does that work? Was there a big pot of flesh and they ladled us out and pointed here and there and said: this flesh goes there and that flesh goes there.”
Atlas furled his brow. “I don’t think that is how it works. He was speaking metaphorically.”
Her eyes grew larger. “He was? I always wanted to know what that expression meant. It’s in my book-” She flinched and looked around hastily. “You haven’t come to take it away, have you?”
Atlas glanced at ‘The Concept of Evolution’, lying nearby on the ground. “No.” He said in honestly. “Actually we want to get to Borealis, do you happen to know how we can do that?”
She bit her lip for a moment, thinking; then her gaze turned strangely vacant for several seconds. Atlas was just about to ask what the matter was when she suddenly replied in a strange monotone voice: “Borealis: Capital of the Technocrats, located at the tip of the South Pole, beyond the spiral sea. The primary protocol of Rim City is to facilitate trade between Borealis and the Great Land, transportation between Borealis and Rim City is facilitated by means of the High-Speed Maxwell Arc-Fountain Train.” Her gaze became clear again.
“Ok…” Ayveron said in a somewhat uncertain tone. “Is that like the bullet train we saw outside of town?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Well, how do we get there?” Atlas wanted to know now.
“It’s at the south end of the island,” she replied.
“Well, alright then, thank you,” he said, surprised that everything went so smoothly all of a sudden, “I guess we’ll go there then. Thank you very much for your help!” Atlas looked at Ayveron who simply shrugged his shoulders and turned around.
As they began to crawl back the way they had come, Atlas stopped, and so did Ayveron: The girl behind them had started sobbing.
Soon the three of them sat united again and Atlas had the unpleasant role of comforting the poor child, a task he found himself ill-equipped for. However, a swift glance at Ayveron told him that his travel companion had no mind of swooping in and taking over, seeming rather clueless himself. “W-well, what is it, what’s wrong… um… I don’t actually know your name…” Atlas admitted, somewhat ashamed.
She suppressed some of her sobbing to look up in confusion and speak: “My… hick… what?”
Now it was Atlas’s turn to be perplexed: “Your name… you know, people have names. Everything has, I guess.”
“Oh… then I’m a… hick… grease monkey,” she said.
Atlas shook his head. “No-no, every human has a unique name. Usually you get it from your parents, I guess. What did your parents call you?”
She seemed even more confused, though her sobbing suddenly stopped and her gaze turned vacant again for a few seconds. It was somewhat unsettling. Then the sobbing continued, though much fainter. “I don’t understand what you are saying. I have no information on ‘parents’… what is that?”
Ayveron tried to take part in the conversation: “You know: Your mother, your father; the people who gave birth to you and raised you.”
She furled her brow, apparently trying to understand that sentence, which gave her some difficulty. Finally she replied carefully: “I have no mother, and I have no father. I know those words, but I barely grasp the meaning. Sometimes when I work in the vents, I can hear the Burning Rods. They talk often, and they sing often. And they say that no one has been born in this city for over fifteen generations.” She stretched her small arms out to reach for the book and opened it, rifling through a few pages. Then she pointed at a diagram. It was a sort-of family tree for a species of murasaki moth. “We don’t have this,” she said and then covered everything but the final line of the tree diagram, “only this. One day I woke up for the first time, and I was grease monkey, and that is what I have been ever since. … until now…” Then she started crying and sobbing again.
Atlas and Ayveron were now the ones barely grasping what she was talking about. This child was very far removed from their expectations and the alien circumstances of her existence were perplexing and perhaps even frightening to them. As with the reactor, Ayveron looked like he understood the situation better than Atlas, and the way he did that was by looking a mixture of horrified and miserable. In the end, however, she was first and foremost a crying child, and no man could have left her lying there in her own misery, or so at least Atlas thought; so he went on: “Why are you so sad?” He did not want to push the name issue, as it seemed to be a dead-end for now.
She held out her arm, and in the very feint light of their odd location, Atlas soon noticed it again: she was glowing slightly. The glow was very weak and blue and drew ominous lines and patterns on her skin, gathering in spots around her throat and shoulder.
“What is that?” Atlas asked in surprise.
Ayveron also leaned in closer to find out what was happening but fell on his behind as he flinched back. He fumbled for his multi-meter and shakily held it closer to her arm, almost as if it was some sort of protective amulet, capable of warding off evil. However, even Atlas quickly realized what the source of Ayveron’s sudden apprehension was: As soon as the multi-meter drew close to the girl, the irregular clacking sound, by now a constant crackle, began to run amok, sounding almost like a voiceless, coughed scream. The girl was severely irradiated.
“By the gears, the glow, what element is that… actinium? But how did it get into your body? And in such quantities!”
The girl’s gaze went blank for another few seconds before she replied in that odd monotone voice: “The ribogenetic profile for isotope incubators includes fortified cell-membranes and isotope-synthesis meta-mitochondria for carbonium generation. Should the allocation of carbonium exceed extraction thresholds by 25% or more, radiation will exceed membrane capacity and alter the synthesis reaction, leading to carbonium cluster-fusion mediated by artificial DVF spikes, resulting in the creation of Actinium.”
Atlas understood not a single word. Not from the girl, and not from Ayveron, leading to the only possible reaction he could exhibit in this situation: “What?”
There was no reply. The girl was sobbing again, and Ayveron… Ayveron did not look well. His hands were shaking, so much so that the multi-meter fell down, clanking and crackling on the ground. There was a certain quality to the horror on Ayveron’s face that made Atlas’s hairs stand on end, perhaps because it was not a frozen mask, but grew worse and worse for quite a few seconds before it finally reached a point of absolute disbelief and terror, “By the gears…” he breathed.
“What is it?!” Atlas insisted, but Ayveron didn’t seem to hear him, so Atlas gently shifted his position as not to disturb the girl to then shake him by the shoulders. “Speak, damn you, what did she just say, what is going on here?!”
Ayveron’s gaze snapped to Atlas and he seemed to stare directly down into his soul as he spoke: “Gates and gears, Atlas, it all makes sense now! It all makes… damn it, I cannot… I refuse to believe it…”
“Believe what? Tell me!”
“The isotope incubators she keeps talking about, they are people! But not ordinary people, they were created artificially somehow, just like this girl! Probably grown in a vat like fruit… Created to produce radioactive material in their bodies. Good grief, they are the source of the radiation we have detected here, they were built to poison themselves! But…”
Now he turned to the girl, while leaving a flabbergasted Atlas to his side. “But then why didn’t you get those isotopes extracted? If there is an extraction threshold there should be a method for extraction, should there not?”
The girl’s sobbing grew wilder. “There… is…. hick.”
“So why didn’t you… you did not know.” His eyes grew wide in sudden realization.
“I’m a… hick… a grease monkey, not an iso… hick… tope incubator. This shouldn’t… hick… have happened…” she cried.
“I am… so sorry…” Ayveron said stricken, and then, to Atlas’s surprise, he took the girl in his arm and hugged her, even though he had made it very clear to Atlas that exposure to the radiation was like a potentially deadly poison to him. “We can’t leave here, Atlas,” he said softly, “not until we have fixed this city.”
Atlas had expected a lot of things, including more incomprehensible techno-babble, but not this. “But Ayveron,” he said incredulously. “You will die if you stay here any longer!”
“I do not care. This is Arkatrash all over again – no, worse! This time we have a chance to do something about it!”
Atlas nodded slowly. “If that is what you wish. I guess we should start by saving that girl.”
“We can’t!” Ayveron interjected to Atlas’s great surprise.
“We can’t save her, don’t you understand? She will be dead in a few hours at best.”
She kept sobbing in Ayveron’s arms, a little girl in rags that was about to die. Another gravestone to be grafted upon Atlas’s back and make him low.
“What do we do now…?” he asked with quivering uncertainty in his voice. He felt as weak and helpless as on the day Ayveron had picked him up from that black field and carried him onward.
“Whatever she wants,” Ayveron suggested. He moved back from her and looked her in the eye: “What do you want to do?”
She rubbed the tears from her eyes: “I want to go to the music box. The Children and the Burning Rods say that we are closest to god when we sing. The traveler taught them music, ten generations ago, and he left them five songs to face their suffering with open arms. There is one of those I want to hear before…” She did not finish the sentence.
Atlas had turned pale. Five songs – it could only mean one thing. Ayveron gave him a quick look but then nodded, and Atlas reluctantly nodded back.
“Alright,” Ayveron said. “If you can lead the way, we will take you to the music box. Is it far?”
“Should we carry you?” Atlas asked carefully. She shook her head. After all was said, she went on through the vents and the two men followed her, crawling along.
Clearly, they slowed her down considerably, but she didn’t seem to mind. With the faint blue glow, they never lost sight of her, even though the blackness around them hampered their sight. After a while, their knees were chafing and their wrists hurt, but neither of them dared to complain or utter a word. The darkness made them lose track of time, but it seemed they were underway for an eternity until, finally, they egressed into some sort of large hall with markings on the ground – mostly lines in white and yellow but some strange signs as well – through which the girl lead them determinedly to a shutter that required some force from both travelers to pry open. Behind it was a long floor with flickering lamplights from strange tubular lamps that likely worked on that electricity Ayveron had been talking about constantly during their visit to Miyako Fluxum. Atlas now had a better grasp of the word, lumping it in with lightning magic. Their time in that great and wondrous city seemed ages ago now…
Their journey took them through many rooms and lead out onto the streets at some point, where the girl finally collapsed and had to be carried while feebly issuing directions. They walked the streets for a while until they had to enter one of the skyscrapers that so impressed Atlas: Manmade mountains with mountainsides of glass. The inside had many chairs and some sort of reception to which the girl lead them. On it lay a strange box with buttons that were mostly gray and black. It was covered in dust and looked rather old.
“Is that the music box?” Atlas asked carefully.
The girl nodded weakly.
“So it will play the song? Do I wind it up somehow?”
She shook her head: “The traveler recorded his voice on five of these. The songs were his gift to the people…” Her voice had grown very faint. “The triangle button starts it…” she added.
“Could you?” Atlas asked Ayveron. He was holding the girl and kept some distance to him. He did not want to expose his friend any more than necessary. Meanwhile he himself had begun to steam even more since he had spent his time close to the girl. There was no doubt that the sword was trying to correct or prevent some damage that was being done to his body. But the water did not seem to come solely from the air around them, because Atlas became more and more thirsty the more time passed by, and he noticed that his water skin was nearly empty.
Ayveron pressed the button, and after a few moments of crackling, an unearthly and beautiful voice began to sing, a voice that shook Atlas to his very core and almost made him drop the girl:
Drowning… drowning… drowning
Drowning… drowning… drowning
Drowning in the asphalt
as I am melting…
The song went on for a couple of minutes and as it ended, Atlas looked down. The girl had died in his arms. Her dead eyes vexed him, just like the voice of the singer had; a voice, much unlike one he had heard many years ago, yet the very same. And in the end, the girl had not had the strength left in her to sing along. She had died with her wish unfulfilled.