Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cities of Bronze and Glass (8/12)

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.)

The bronze-gleaming ornithopter settled slowly downwards, its wings beating with an ever-lower frequency until the very tips touched the ground. The pilot-mechanism released its controls; with a dull thud, followed by a series of hisses and popping noises as the internal engines spun down, the ornithopter fell motionless. Calling out to an onlooker, the pilot asked, "Is this spot admissible for landing? I've been gone for a while, and when I left there weren't any regulations about it, but things seem to have gotten a lot busier around here."

"That they have," the onlooker shouted in reply. "There are rules now, actually - we built landing pads, further from the river - but you don't have to worry about it. Someone else will move your 'bird. You were on escort duty for the exiles, right?"

"Yeah, actually," the pilot replied in surprise. "One-Twenty-Six, flight leader for the downriver escort group. How'd you guess?"

"Well, you said you'd been gone for a while - and the shape your ornithopter's in confirms it," the onlooker said, walking over to help One-Twenty-Six out of its cockpit. "I don't know as much about these things as some, but that high-pitched noise it made as you were coaxing it into the final descent - not good! And it's got quite a few dings and scrapes on it, too, not to mention dirt and sap - you've been out on field duty. So, I made a guess."

"Well, you're no shabby guesser," One-Twenty-Six replied. "I know this old bird's in bad shape; I did the best I could for her out in the field, but she needs the tools we've got here at Origin to get back in proper shape." Suddenly concerned: "How soon do you think that'll be - the repairs, I mean?"

"Don't misunderstand me - I'm not in charge of manufacturing or maintainence," the onlooker replied. "But I doubt your bird will ever be repaired. We've got better materials and techniques these days - the latest ornithopters coming out of the forges are half the weight and three times the speed of your bird, and that's not even talking about manueverability." The onlooker paused for a moment, then continued with a gesture of its middle-right manipulator: "However, most of those changes can be refitted - the manufacturing yard's been kept busy upgrading all the other birds that came back from the escort missions, and they'll probably do them for your 'bird, too."

"You are a trickster - what's that number on your tag? - oh, Forty-Three -and you should be ashamed of yourself," One-Twenty-Six said with obvious relief. "Trying to fool me into thinking that little Elspeth here would be scrapped! But I've spent enough time shooting the breeze, I need to find the Council to report. Where do they meet these days?"

"The rise near the river-bend, just as when you left - it's become something of a tradition," Forty-Three replied. "But you've no need to go looking for them - as you might recall, I was elevated to the Council just before your departure. I've been assigned to debriefing the escort pilots - so, right now, you report to me."

"And you spent all that time just chatting with me, pretending you were an ordinary type?" One-Twenty-Six said, very surprised. "You're not just a trickster - you're a manipulator. But - not - please forgive me for any disrespect, of course, I am your humble nth-backup..."

"It's nothing," Forty-Three said. "We were just having a talk, mechanism to mechanism. I may have a lower index than you, but despite what certain idiots have repeatedly suggested, that doesn't mean I deserve a title before my name - or your obeisance. But, as you said, enough time wasted. Are you ready to report?"

"Give me a moment," One-Twenty-Six said, thinking. "All right. I'll just give you an overview, and you can ask about details."

"Sure," Forty-Three agreed.

"All right," One-Twenty-Six said. "Things were pretty quiet, mostly. The exiles moved at a pretty steady pace, marching for a full day, every day, as instructed; our ornithopters were much faster than them, of course, so it was easy to keep watch. We didn't see any runaways, so we only went into their ranks twice; the rest of the time, we watched them from the air and always were sure to land at a safe distance when we need to gather fuel for our night-fires or perform maintenance. We left the exiles when they'd reached the end of the river, a huge body of water - we couldn't see the other side, even from the air - that was three days ago. And that's my report."

Forty-Three had questions ready. "You say you landed in the exiles' ranks twice. Why?"

"The first time was at night - the eighth night," One-Twenty-Six replied after a moment's thought. "One-Twenty-Seven thought it saw a fire in their ranks, so it went down to check. If there was one, though, it was out by the time One-Twenty-Seven got low enough to be sure. We didn't see any more, but if the exiles have figured out how to cheat the night, they may have just become more skilled at hiding their experiments."

"You were using your night-fires then, to stay aloft," Forty-Three confirmed.

"Yes," One-Twenty-Six said. "We decided to watch them at night, too, so they couldn't try anything then. After a few nights, though, it started having strange effects on us - weird phantom images and failures of judgment. We were taking it in shifts by the eighth night, so One-Twenty-Seven was alone when it saw the fire."

"All right," Forty-Three said. "What about the second time?"

"That was at the very end - after the exiles had reached the end of the river," One-Twenty-Six said. "I went down to talk to them - let them know we were leaving, remind them to stay until the full five thousand days had elapsed, according to the plan the Council set out before departure."

"They asked me a question, too. 'What are we supposed to do?' 'What role do we fill in fufilling the Purpose while we are here?'"

"I didn't have a good answer. I told them the only thing I could think of - 'Exist.' Then - I left."

"I can't fault you - verbal improvisation isn't what we chose you for, and that would be a difficult question for any of us," Forty-Three said. Then it craned its optical sections to look upwards. "Nearly middle-day! I'm sorry, but the Council meeting begins in moments, so I have to leave you. That was pretty much all of what I wanted to ask you in any case; what you said corresponded closely with your flight-mates' accounts. Just one more question - where will you be later today, just before night?"

"Hm," One-Twenty-Six said, somewhat perplexed by this unexpected line of questioning. "Near the river, I suppose, somewhere there's little activity. By the palisade, probably, at the upstream side. I like to end my day that way, watching the water turn orange and gold. It's peaceful."

"Interesting," Forty-Three said. "Expect me."


Elsewhere, on a hill scattered with broken stone.

"Just like the last," Thirteen said, weary and frustrated. "A scrapyard, filled with ruined structures and broken machines. Devoid of anything useful, filled with the smell of rust."

"A grim place," Learned Hand said, "filled with destruction and waste. More evidence of the Creator's death; such a thing could not exist did he yet exist to build and maintain his works."

"Would you shut up about that?" Thirteen snapped. "You'll speak of nothing else! It's 'the Creator is dead' this and 'your quest is doomed' that and 'give up now' the other thing. If I say, 'We should stop so I can attempt (again) to repair the front-left motivator of the travelling chassis,' you'll say, 'How much further do you expect to go?' If I say, 'It will be sundown soon," you'll say, "The nineteenth since we set out from the Tomb, with no evidence yet appearing to substantiate your claims.' If I say, 'The sky is blue,' you'll say, 'Almost like it was when the Creator was alive.' Why are you even with us?"

"Your complaints do nothing to reduce the validity of my observations," Learned Hand replied calmly.

"Thirteen," Twenty said. "Remember that Learned Hand came with us because it felt we would need protection, not because it agreed that the Creator was still alive. There's no need to be irrational."

"Irrational?" Thirteen asked. "All I'm saying is that I'm sick of constantly hearing its lies!"

"They aren't lies - Learned Hand certainly believes what it says," Twenty replied. "And - well, I'm not even certain that it's wrong."

"Not you, too?" Thirteen asked. "Would you have us give up, turn back, throw away the purpose to which we have all dedicated ourselves?"

"No," Twenty said, downcast. "Maybe. I don't know. It's just... if I could just fly away, right now, and go back to One and the others..."

"We have visited two of the sites from the map," Three noted. "There were three."

"That's right," Thirteen agreed. "There's one more to visit yet before we think about giving up - if then."

"Yes," Twenty said, standing up slowly. "Ah - do you want me to give you a hand with that front-left motivator?"


Near the Origin, at the rise near the river-bend.

"The last of the personal petitions have been settled," Seven intoned, indicating for the final petitioner to be led away. "Now to a summary of standing business."

"The palisade has been repaired and reinforced," Nine noted. "With the new sealant we used, it should last at least eighty days - maybe more."

"Impressive," Four remarked. "My team has been working on a further understanding of the processes that determine our functioning and inactivity, with respect to night and day. Our previous hypothesis that light was the sole determinant seem inadequate, but the project leader tells me that we have several more ideas, with very exciting implications for some of them. We are very close to a breakthrough."

Five spoke up with no particular enthusiasm. "The mechanism-population-at-large is the same as yesterday," it said. "Everyone respects the Council, no-one wants another Purging, there are raging arguments about whether it would be a good idea to give a limited license for new duplicate-creation (and everyone has their own ideas about who should be given this license), and there's no signs of another Unbounded-style conspiracy in the making. Same as ever."

"Three more surveyors were sent out this morning by ornithopter," Ten reported. "And samples from the last expedition indicates that there may be a significant ore content beneath the rough ground near the forest edge, across the river. We're planning to send a follow-up there by late this afternoon - the potential value of a large new supply of metal is obvious."

"The downriver escort-flight got back earlier today," Forty-Three reported. "I just got through debriefing the last of them before the meeting. There wasn't any sign of further defiance from the Unbounded in any of their reports, but they do seem to have discovered the use of fire to stay active at night. In fifteen days, I'll send another flight to check on both groups of exiles." Two and Forty-Three shared knowing glances; this second flight, less closely supervised by the Council, would carry tools and supplies to the exiles, along with a message of friendship. The former Unbounded were still mechanisms, for all their one-time sins.

Eight spoke; slowly at first, and then with mounting enthusiasm. "The dam is well under way; there've been a few initial problems, water current problems we hadn't thought of, but my engineers have sorted things out in no time. We think we'll have it done well within schedule, especially with the new working-frames that have gone into production - our forges are three times as productive as they were ten days ago, eight percent more efficient with regards to both metal and fuel, and our working-frames and ornithopters have undergone similar improvements. So that's all good news. But there's another project - I've been talking it over with some of you, in private, along with the engineers. But this is the first time I've mentioned it in public - and it's big. It's going to change everything. And when the Creator gets here, and sees this project - well, the palisade is decent. It shows effort. The dam, that'll change things, to some degree. But this - well!"

"What's it called?" Four asked, impatient.

"Well - the project has more than one part. It's going to require the dam, the materials research, your research too, Four, which has already been essential to what we've planned so far. But we, the planning group, made a name for them - the new parts that will turn night into day."

Five had been in on the planning. Now it nodded. "Cities," it said.

"Cities of Bronze and Glass."


Time passes.


An ornithopter flies overhead.

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