Saturday, April 04, 2009

Cities of Bronze and Glass (10/12)

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9.)

Two and Forty-Three walk side-by-side, the palisade around Origin visible behind them. The mechanisms have made a tremendous impact on the surrounding area, even over the short span of their existence to date; the area near the palisade is heavily logged, shrubbery torn and crushed under the feet of the mechanical working-frames, and plumes of smoke rise from the ever-burning smelters of the metallurgists. Beside the smoke, too, is a newer sight: a set of great domes, three in all. But they are not the subject of Two or Forty-Three's attentions.

"We've made a great deal of progress, haven't we?" Two says, sweeping a manipulator to indicate the landscape around them. "To think: less than a hundred days ago, there was no mark to indicate that a mechanism had ever existed. And now..."

"We've each done our part, to the extent of our ability," Forty-Three replies, sounding uncertain. "But this is nothing new; we've not been getting wood from here in over twenty days, not since the engineers figured out how to ship it from upstream. Nothing's really changed since then."

"No, nothing new to see here," Two agrees. "That isn't really why I wanted you to take this trip with me. I wanted to talk in privacy, to allow us to speak our minds freely without fear of misunderstandings from passers-by."

"What subject allows such dangerous ambiguity?" Forty-Three asks.

"Not one, but two," Two replies. "But we will proceed linearly; so disregard this for the moment. I wanted to talk to you about your oversight of the surveying project."

"What about it?" Forty-Three replies. "We've been making great progress; the most promising result in the last few days is the discovery of some sort of elastic, malleable substance produced by trees in the north, but we need to do a follow-up investigation on that to determine whether it's viable for large-scale use. A mineral survey from the east has turned up what looks to be a phenomenally pure deposit of iron, and the very last survey to the south reported trees of fantastic height, potentially useful for construction..."

"And to the west?" Two asks.

"Nothing of tremendous interest," Forty-Three says. "There've been a few things, but nothing shocking or groundbreaking. That's no reason to stop sending flights, of course - what we've seen doesn't predict what we've not gotten to yet, otherwise we'd know the whole world just by standing here - but it is a bit disappointing. Is that what you wanted to talk about?"

"Not exactly," Two says. "It is sad that we've found little of interest to the west, but that's hardly something I can blame you or your surveyors for. It's more an interesting little fact I discovered while rifling through my memories a few hours ago. Thinking about it, I realized that you had sent more surveys, and sent them further, on western expeditions than in any other direction - despite the unproductivity of investigation in that very direction."

"Obviously, if we weren't finding anything in the areas we looked at, we'd want to move in larger steps to try to find a more interesting region - then we could move backwards, in necessary," Forty-Three justifies. "And truthfully, there haven't been that many expeditions in any direction - perhaps, oh, forty in total, split over the various routes? Any aberration you're seeing is likely a result of random statistical flux, natural in small samples."

"Even more peculiarly," Two continues, "I noticed that, without exception, you always sent the same team on the western surveys - One-Twenty-Six and its backups."

"They know the area by now," Forty-Three says. "It's efficiency, nothing more."

"But they weren't the first team to run the western surveys - Eighty-Eight's team had done the first two. You switched them to other duties without explanation."

"They were not performing optimally in that position," Forty-Three replies tersely. "Do you have a point you're trying to make, or are you just talking to hear your own voicebox rattle?"

"Forty-Three!" Two cries, feigning shock. "So rude! I might even think you have something to hide from me. From me - your closest friend in the Council - your fellow mechanism, sharing the same common purpose! And you do of course share that purpose, to ensure the Creation, I'm perfectly certain of that. No doubt in my mind. So I have to wonder: what on earth could you, helpful, deferential little Forty-Three, want to hide so badly that it pushes you into this phenomenally uncharacteristic behavior?"

"I repeat my question," Forty-Three says.

Two pauses a moment, and then speaks again. "Sometimes I wonder about you, Forty-Three," it says musingly. "Of course I never met you before I left on that ill-fated ornithopter flight, but there you were when I got back, practically waiting for me, so very helpful and informative. And your number - you must've been fresh from the forges then, just barely done building your Forty-Four. Or - was Forty-Three built later, I wonder?"

"Of course not," Forty-Three replies coolly. "I'm no case of special creation; you ascribe to me the position that only One holds. Do you have any reason to think otherwise?"

"No, no, of course not," Two says reassuringly. Again it pauses, thinking. "I knew so few of you before I left. Three, Five... and One, of course. That was all! All there was..."

Forty-Three allows some time to pass before it speaks again. "Was that all you wished to speak about? Because I noticed that we're still walking away from Origin."

"No, my apologies," Two replies. "There is one more thing - of rather a more substantial nature."

"You won't like it."


"This day is a great day for all mechanisms!" Four cries, all six manipulators upraised. Its visual sensors glow. "It has been exactly ninety days since One awoke to consciousness; two by three by three by five, nothing more! In that time, we have mastered fire and metal, the earth and the air. We have explored the world around us and uncovered its secrets, we have studied its mystery-shrouded processes and transformed them into Laws. We have done this - all of us! Each and every one of us, from One, whose dome lies solemnly buried at the very Origin, to Two-Hundred Thirty-One, who I welcome into our ranks for its original's fine work in materials research. Well done! It is mechanisms such as you that render the Creation ever more certain."

"And it is very certain! No obstacle stands against us. The wild beasts are repelled by our palisade and flee from our working-frames; the water gives way to our rafts and our ornithopters. The greatest threat we ever faced did not come from without, but from within; but we overcame even that, and saw the situation resolved optimally, in the truest sense of the word!"

"But I must caution you, here. This day is a glorious one, but even on a day such as this - especially on such a day - we must be cautious. The Unbounded - the very name reeks! - came from within us, from our ranks. We must be certain that such a thing never happens again! The elevation of personal hubris over communal welfare, the elevation of short-term construction over the long-term stability necessary to await Creation with certainty - these are the sins that created the Unbound! They lurk within all of us, patient, waiting to strike. I see the signs of them every day - on the small scale, in the little things, but from the small arises the large - and for proof of that, you need only look behind me!" Four gestures to the great domes behind it, for illustration, before returning to its speech. "This is our finest moment, but even now, especially now, we must contain ourselves. Elevate your original over yourself! Watch your fellows for signs of error, and report any that spotted! Only with stringent discipline can we be certain of optimal performance."

"That, fellows mechanisms, was all that I wished to say. I offer you the grandest congratulations for your achievements, and pass the speaker's position to Eight, waiting here beside me. I'm certain it has even more to say."

"Pompous blowhard," comes a mutter from the crowd. Four pauses in its step, but then continues, having thought better of replying.

Eight prepares to speak.


"Multiple unknown ornithopters, flying over the very Origin," Forty-Three replies tonelessly. "Why was no-one told about this?"

"No-one needed to know," Two replies. "We ourselves took far too long to realize what was going on. At least two - very possibly more - passed without any attempt at interception; we wouldn't have known about them at all if a pair of mechanisms hadn't looked up at just the right time for each, and saw a very un-bird-like glint of metal off their hulls. After that, we set up a ready team, watching the sky and ready to go airborne at any moment -"

"That's why you pulled the ornithopterns needed for the northeastern survey," Forty-Three interrupts. "You said that the new ornithopter design was potentially unstable - needed further testing before you could assign it to long-range duty."

"Perfectly true," Two agreed. "Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to weed it out, that instability cropped up at the worst possible moment. The ready team spotted another overflight after five days of waiting; launched after it like a dart. (There's a reason we tried to use the westriver fabric for the wings; it's three times lighter than what we used before!) They spotted us, dove towards the forest; our pilot pursued. They're weren't four minutes in the air before a sudden turn ripped the wing and lost them half their lift; but they still went after the other ornithopter, trying to hound it to the ground. Failed, failed by an inch, according to both the pilot and eyewitnesses; and we lost the other ornithopter and nearly our own, too, were it not for some very tricky work getting it to ground in one piece. That was our first attempt."

"They weren't stupid, of course; took precautionary measures after they realized they'd been spotted. The next ornithopter was covered in mud; slower, clumsier, but no tell-tale glints. Nothing that could be seen from the ground; but we weren't stupid, either, and had a team in the air. One-Thirty-Four spotted a reflection off the ornithopter's pilot, dove on it, straight in from the sun; the One-Forties harried it from the sides, driving it straight down to the ground, not too far from the river."

"I was told that the One-Forties' ornithopters were being recalled for maintainence - but that wasn't the real reason either, was it?" Forty-Three asked bitterly.

"It was Four's idea to keep this as contained as possible," Two admitted. "Just it, me, Eight, and the pilots involved. Limited as possible."

"Are you apologizing?" Forty-Three asked.

"No," Two said. "For once - Four was right."

"The pilot was another mechanism. Not from some other civilization founded by the Creator's works, not from some stranger race yet - a mechanism. It was shoddily made, as was its ornithopter - even without the mud clogging it down, it'd have been a miracle if it managed to evade even one of ours - and there was a number on it, engraved into its very body. Four-Thousand, Six-Hundred and Three."

"The Unbounded," Forty-Three said. Its voice was sad.

"Yes," Two confirmed. "We took it to pieces - it so valued its own hull that it was willing to betray its purpose for the sake of continued existence! So we learned its purpose, too. It was a messenger, between the northern and southern Exile colonies. They've been conspiring against us, nearly from the moment that our escorts left them. Their messages have been carried by ornithopters - the ones we spotted - and this was the last of them, confirming their agreement, their commitment to pursuing the goals previously discussed."

"You're being evasive," Forty-Three says.

"Yes," Two agrees again. "I... I was hopeful. The Unbounded are mechanisms, too; for all their ideological differences, they can trace their descent back to One, just as we can. They should share our purpose... for all its anger, misguided and accurate both, when Eleven left us to forge its own path, I don't think this is the one it intended. I really don't..."

"What path have the Unbounded chosen?" Forty-Three presses, as gently as it can. "What common goal have they agreed to?"

Two answers.


"Four said many fine words just now," Eight says, seeming somewhat uncomfortable. "I would like to second them, and to repeat them, I suppose, with a bit more specificity. What you see here - what we come to celebrate today - would not be possible without your labours. Not without the engineers, whose creativity allowed the design and planning of the many components that support this great construction. Not without the surveyors, whose many discoveries gave us the materials and tools we needed. Not without the miners, not without the woodcutters, not without the metalworkers, the construction crews, and all the others - every one of you, in one way or another, is responsible for the success for this, the pinnacle of our efforts to date. It is a pinnacle, as the palisade was, for a time; the dam, for some time after that; and now this, which will stand supreme among our efforts for many scores of days, even if our most ambitious plans are realized. (And given time, they will be - the only thing that can stop us is the advent of Creation itself, and perhaps not even that!)"

"But I'm speculating wildly. This is the truth of the matter: this project, the Cities of Bronze and Glass, are a tool and a shelter such as we have never had before. They are vast, capable of holding twice our number in tremendous comfort, and ten times that before we would actually need to expand them; they are strong, built of materials that will yield neither to storm-winds nor hail-stones. And what they allow - oh, what they allow! Up until now, we have worked for but half the day - twelve hours a day, no more, no less. When the sun sets, so do our efforts. Our only means to escape the shackles of night - firelight - takes valuable daylight hours to gather the fuel required, blinds with smoke and has a very limited radius of effect. It is inefficient! So for half of our existences, we have stood still, useless, insensate to the world."

"No longer!"

"The Cities of Bronze and Glass are our means to escape this existence; to enter a world in which we wake, and work, for twenty-four hours each day. In the day, they are open to the light, well-lit through the glass panes that compose their sides; at night, lights at their peaks, powered by the river-dam, light the confines, and bronze shutters close over the sides to ensure that only the barest minimum of light escapes. Within is space to work, plan, philosophise; everything that we could possibly need! They are, this day, completed - and this - this is a new existence! We - all of us - will be able to achieve heights of productivity such as we never dreamed!"

The crowd, legitimately enthused, cheers. Then they quiet; Eight has stopped speaking. Another voice rings out.

"The Cities of Bronze and Glass - we will need them," Two says, its voice choked with some unclear emotion. The crowd murmurs in surprise; no-one saw Two appear, yet here it is, standing next to Eight with Forty-Three right beside.

But Two continues to speak: "The Unbounded are returning. Ten thousand strong."

"We have perhaps fifteen days to find a way to stop them; and now, thanks to the Cities, fifteen nights."

"It may not be enough."


Author's note: This post was drafted (on the web, at least, if not in my head) 26 days ago. The last post in the series was 12 days before that.

March was a very strange month for the blag.

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