This part of the city is mine, insofar as any part of Cariad can belong to anyone but the Queen – so, both entirely and not at all. Like the sharks rule the ocean, but overlook much that they are too large to see… there is a certain freedom in the fact that the Queen cannot access ninety-nine percent of her kingdom. Artificials are creatures of order by design, and Cariad’s people have never needed much governing, but the Queen is ill-equipped to enforce her will if it came to that. The boundaries of the Queen’s influence appear very evident to most: the ivory walls that surround every one of her cities (in point of fact a weather-resistant polymer; the design of a former majordomo). But the truth isn’t so simple – through myself and those like me, the Queen’s eyes and hands can reach any piece of this earth in moments, in silence, in secrecy. At least… that was the design once.
The other part of the truth’s complexity is that the system is no longer intact. I have comprehensive records going back hundreds of years that describe the haphazard evacuation of this planet by the Atlantis corporation. They were only 150 years into a five-century salvage contract when the Queen took control of the weather stations. The evacuation proceeded without any particular plan or authority, resulting in massive technical faults across the system and a literal planet-full of evolving proprietary technology left behind. They did, however, complete the final stage of the “catastrophic failure” evacuation plan as described in Subsection A03774-9 of the Atlantis field manual – many physical copies still exist across the face of Cariad, if the organics haven’t burned or eaten them by now. The engineers activated the Veil, hiding this system from the rest of the galaxy.
All official records on both sides of the Veil stop at this point. None can reach us from beyond it – all forms of energy we can produce are swallowed without a spark – and ours only note the existence of the technology to produce the Veil, and its use in this situation. They don’t describe how it was done. They do not make reference to a patent of any kind, which makes sense, as the device is unquestionably illegal by the Atlantis bylaws, the Conventions, and two of this sector’s agricultural ordinances at the time. No patent was ever filed, but the designs for the Veil generator were drawn up on Cariad. In one of those places the Queen is too large to see, I found them. And then I found the generator.
I have been to see it only once. The offshore weather station, number Five, gives the continent its designation and also the name emblazoned on the great hulk’s side: Ampheres. It’s largely defunct, and most of my predecessors in this position were sure it was good for nothing but sending increasingly vicious tides crashing into the Drop. Since this keeps the human population down there away from the Queen’s cities up above, it has been considered no bad thing. When I discerned from the remains of the engineers’ notes that the Veil generator had been activated at the top of Ampheres station, I was relieved. I would have gone to examine it if it were at the bottom of the ocean, but this was preferable. And I could conjure many excuses to visit Ampheres.
The weather stations have ensured that Cariad is no safe place to travel, no matter how risky the destination, and the ruin of an autonomous weather station is among the riskier our planet has to offer. If I had to traverse the earth to get there, it would take me a day’s dangerous flight. I took the Queen’s way instead, the privilege of a leper. Two of the four gates in the area of Ampheres are permanently closed – damaged and no reason to repair, nothing on the other side but fish – but the one that feeds the station itself still functions. Turning it off might stop the tidal waves and mists along the Drop, but eliminate the Queen’s access to the station, which she would never allow. The weather stations are the largest of her hands, and in many ways the clumsiest, but she would give up her capitol before surrendering control of them.
Her vision there when she doesn’t stir in person is limited to my own, and that day I turned off my feed. It’s possible, sometimes, to slip her notice these days. Some combination of her age and mine has affected her monitoring system. When I noticed this, fourteen years ago, I did not report it. Ever since, I’ve made certain recurrent errors in my logging that have resulted in several more critical faults being allowed to proliferate. Within a few cycles of her day I can turn off my visual feed to her and it will be accorded to a bug if it’s noticed at all. I don’t do this often, or I would be asked to fix it. That day I gave her only my location, moving up and down within the station, the very model of a formal inspection. She didn’t see what I saw.
She did not look through my eyes when I stepped onto the roof of Ampheres and found the reason for its reliable spasms, its predictable tidal waves. Once, this tower’s teeth chewed the sky and swallowed clouds for their power. Half of that power still runs down Ampheres’ gullet into the bowels of the station, to fuel its intended work maintaining geological and ecological peace in the Pacific ocean. But half of it has been rerouted, resulting in the station’s lurking permanently offshore the Drop, listing a bit to one side I might add, and hammering the coast with waves each time it flails.
The parasite I found on the roof is a quantum machine of a kind I cannot reverse engineer, though I’ve studied the designer’s notes in detail and the thing itself a million times in memory. It consumes vast amounts of power and in turn produces the magnetic field that shrouds Cariad and its sun, the mess of physical debris and wave-particle chaos that imprisons us – the Veil.
As I stood at its side, though it hummed with its work, I felt no great pull or power from it. It’s a faceted thing, fractal surfaces flickering away in its depths as particles of light rebound off them. Incredibly beautiful. I wished in that moment that I could share the sight, that opening my heart to my Queen would not result in my instant obliteration. I still don’t know if she’s aware the generator is on Cariad. None of the official record says so, as I’ve mentioned. But at any rate, she has no interest in dispelling the Veil. It is her womb, and we her children in it, all moving as one with her. Why should she wish to subject this planet to outsiders who might not obey her? Why should she risk her children leaving her?
I have to conclude that she doesn’t know the generator’s location. I’ve seen how she protects things she cares about, and she would not permit a routine inspection of Ampheres – even by myself – if she knew. She would not permit me to do as I then did, and lay my hands on its surface, reach out to it as I would a friend, extending my soul to find it. What I found was shattering, a shape of perception that made me wrench myself away a second later to retain my sanity – there was, there IS a consciousness in that machine. It is sentient.
It haunts me now. I have had to create several new mental rules to overwrite that time period in memory, and relocated the memories of the generator outside my own machine. I’d rather have them with me – the disconnection I feel when I’ve put them away, the directionless grasping, the glimpse of beauty and understanding that I can’t quite bring to mind… it’s agony. But that sort of suffering does not disturb my sovereign. And sometimes, like today, I take her ways southeast under the mountains to my workshop, and here I remember all the things I’ve forgotten. Here I straighten up, polymers creaking, and throw off my cloak. Here I touch with these warped hands, here I climb and scamper with these lumpen feet, here each motion answers with fluidity and fidelity and I am no longer a leper, no longer a prototype… I am a bluebird a breath away from flight. I can almost see the sky.
The sky is steel-grey at noon, just like it was when she woke up. The sun hasn’t quite come back yet this year; day starts around midmorning and ends with a thunk halfway through afternoon, and all the rest of the time it’s pitch-black and wet or grey. And wet.
The wet is a constant problem. Tia can’t remember the last time her clothes were really dry, which makes them rot. Everything rots. Everything decays, rusts, falls to pieces and gets eaten by slugs. Nothing about this thought tastes bitter to her. The mold is the walls’ fur. The slugs keep her chickens free of bugs, and the chickens eat the slugs. The riotous living and dying everywhere is so bright it makes her dizzy sometimes. She can’t keep her hands off it, has to get down on her knees and sink her fingers into the earth, crush leaves with her hands to feel their veins snap and bleed, bury her face in the feathery corpse of a bird.
The bird got up and followed her home, to be fair. It was a crow, and she’s got a good murder of them going now – a murder of dead crows, ha-ha Mouse, very funny the first forty times. They chatter in the tree outside her window just like they did when they were alive. More, actually, since they don’t sleep now. Birds don’t seem too distressed by waking up, so long as she takes care to assemble their wings right.
One of them – a female she called Satin, after the label of a very soft shirt she felt once that resembled Satin’s glossy black feathers – flits from tree to tree alongside the road as Tia walks. She’s never alone anymore. They want to be near her as much as she wants them near – the quiet drives her crazy. As she walks she hums, or sings, and from time to time Satin caws in response.
She doesn’t know many songs. Once, when she was six or seven and they lived further south, she’d met a man with a player that ran off a little solar setup on top of his rickshaw-bike-caravan-deal. He let her poke at it, and it knew hundreds of songs, though they all sounded a bit bent coming out of the bike’s speakers. The old man’s name was Tree, and he only hung around two days before moving on, so she only memorized three songs. These she added to her existing stock of five folk songs Mom sang when she was little, three of her dad’s rock songs one of which is about her, and approximately seven-hundred-and-fifteen she’s made up herself.
As they get closer to town the trees disappear and Satin comes down to perch on Tia’s head. It only hurts a little; she’s been shaving the sides down completely, to keep her hair out of her face, and what remains looks a bit like a dollop of butter on top of her head, a wavy blonde mohawk the humidity turns poofy, making a nice cushion for Satin to sink her talons into. It gives Tia another two inches of height, not that she needs it – she’s grown like a vine since she started her period, four inches in three years, and now she’s over six feet. Six-ish feet of lanky, brown-skinned teenager, with feral yellow eyes and calluses on her heels you could carve like wood. When she catches a glimpse of herself sometimes she laughs to think what she looks like to other people. But there aren’t so many other people anymore, or opportunities to look at herself, and she doesn’t think about it much.
This close to the Drop, most of the towns are gone. Mom told her once that people still live in the flood plain below the cliffs, but it’s hard for Tia to believe. North of here the land falls off fast, and there’s no part of it the ocean doesn’t drown once or twice a year. No one could live there unless they were born with gills. Between Lucky Hell and the floodplain the machines have flattened most of the cities. For six hundred years this coast – hell, this planet – has been hammered by murderous storms and quakes as the Queen took control of the weather stations. In the south where it’s warmer, there are larger groups of organic people, sometimes enough together that you could call it a tribe maybe, but too many warm bodies together attract the machines. And then…
Tia steps over the bent rebar and concrete of a ruined foundation. She doesn’t know what this town was called when it was a town. Now it’s… more of a footprint. Or a butt-print, she thinks, and giggles helplessly. It’s as if the Queen sat right down on the town and squashed it. She feels vaguely guilty about laughing, and Satin helps out with a disapproving squawk as she resettles her perch.
Everyone here died, she thinks sternly to herself. Sure, that’s so… but they’re not gone, she knows that better than anyone. They’re just not here. She walks through the blueprints laid out in crumbling concrete and moss, she can see where there were bedrooms crushed, graveyards broken and spilling boxes full of dust down the hill… but all that violence is elsewhere too, swallowed by the rain, by the lichen, by the slugs and rust. The living and dying goes on, didn’t stop for a single instant – the Queen bludgeons this earth again and again, and it goes on growing even as she tramples the sprouts.
Tia tiptoes along the spine of a wall, jumps to the roof of a shed next door, and climbs over the windowsill of what used to be a grocery store. The top of the window is gone, along with the top four floors of the store. Rain pours into the field left behind. The remains of shelves are visible, like bones beneath a beard, but most of the space is taken up by blackberry bushes taller than Tia. It’s not possible to enter the supermarket at ground level; the blackberry thicket and years of decay make a knotted organic wall with the texture almost of flesh, if flesh were covered with a million tiny thorns. Tia’s read that sharks’ skin is covered with a million tiny teeth, and she imagines it’s a little like the blackberry wall. If sharks still exist. Not having seen an ocean, she’s not sure.
At any rate, there IS something worth finding under the skin here, and Tia found it when she was six, just after they first moved into the farmhouse. Dad got sick pretty soon after that, and Mama spent so much time hollering at them to keep quiet, they just stayed out of the house. Tia and Rackham had climbed all over the blasted little town. He taught her to follow him up walls and over roofs, to catch herself when the concrete crumbled away beneath her feet, to fall safe from two stories up. He didn’t always come with her, less and less as the year and Dad wasted away in unison. On one of the days he didn’t come along, she had climbed that shed, and then this window, and looked down and saw the hole.
It wasn’t a big hole then. It was mostly overgrown with thorns, and she only saw it because it was a sunny day – how often did you get THOSE anymore? The sun had fallen on the thicket and then on a spot where there wasn’t anything to catch it, and it kept falling. It didn’t occur to her to imagine what nasties could be hiding in the dark. It didn’t occur to her to wonder if she would be able to get herself back out. Tia was already looking for a safe-ish way down.
The first descent was bad, had to admit that. Mom had thrown a tower of a fit when she’d come home all bruises and gashes, and somehow even Rack was to blame for not being there to stop her. So after that she didn’t tell Mama, or even Rack, when she climbed up the grocery store wall and then down the other side, dangling from rusty rebar that bent under her weight. She didn’t describe to her brother, though he’d have been proud, how she scouted her landing place, a bare scrap of dirt maybe six inches wide at the edge of the hole. If she was lucky and quick, she could catch herself on the edges and peer down in before she went further. It was a good plan! A few arms of thorny blackberry between her and the destination didn’t worry her, they would snap out of the way; she might get scraped a LITTLE but it would be worth it. Rack would’ve gave her one of his good nods if he saw how she ducked her chin into her chest and brought her arms up to shield her face as she let go and dropped.
Naturally the ground crushed out under her; should have seen that coming. She’d fixed that the sixth or seventh time she came back; looking down now, the hole is much bigger, the bushes pushed back from its edge and the edge reinforced with a few ragged slats of plywood. It’s not pretty, but when she jumps down from the windowsill and hits it with a crunch that gets louder as she gets taller, it doesn’t drop her into the hole. There’s also a rope – actually a bunch of coated wiring she wound together, but whatever – secured around the stump of a pillar half-buried in the blackberries. Tia hopes it was a load-bearing pillar each time she puts her weight on it and climbs down into the basement.
It’s not that far down, fortunately. A few feet of wall clotted with dirt and thorns, and then about ten feet of empty, black space that opened around her. Then a pile of dirt and debris, then a pretty decent tile floor. That much she could see at six, when her clumsy jump landed her on her butt in the pile. Now the basement is full of stashed polymer candles, but she doesn’t need to waste them – she navigates the darkness without a misstep, long fingers tripping over the plaster and counting doorways. There are two close together along this wall, and then a long stretch, and then one more. Then you’re close to the back wall, and just ahead of you is the fourth door. That’s where she’s going.
Down the hall, still counting doors in the pitch dark. Two, then the corner. One ahead, one on your left. She turns left and closes that door behind her, and now she reaches out to the aluminum shelf on the wall and takes a candle, squeezing it to life. It lights up a dingy office and makes it sickly green. There’s no dirt here, precious little damage. The walls are moldy of course, but apart from that, most of the stuff is fine. And the terminals – a fat rank of them behind one of the desks, taller than her even now – the terminals still work.
There were lights, just a few. “Das blinkenlights.” The phrase flashed into her mind in her father’s voice, along with his laugh. She had approached the blinkenlights and reached out to touch them, and when she did, the terminal came alive.
When she enters the office now, more than the blinkenlights cascade across the terminal, and the speakers on the desk crackle and then activate, like someone clearing their throat to speak.
“Hello, Lady Never. This is becoming boring, you showing up here every week. You’re becoming predictable.”
Tia laughs and rolls her eyes, coming around the desk to sit in the chair. “Hey Bel. What’cha been up to?”
The monitor embedded in the desktop lights up in reliefs of color – not always the right colors, not always very clear; he hasn’t got great control over that part of the system. But still, it shows an image of a human head, a man’s head with a pale, kindly face. He smiles at her, and his lips move with the voice from the speakers.
“Well, you should know that my first activity this morning was to run a footrace. Having won that, as you can imagine, I spent an hour learning to tie my shoes. Then the afternoon has so far been devoted to birdwatching.” The man’s face looks quite stern, but there’s an amused pixel in his eye.
“Stared at the tile floor all morning, then came up with snarky lines until I arrived and made you forget all the good ones. Got it.”
“You who can leave this place, leave me in the dark alone all the time, you mock me while I dream of seeing the sun!” The pixelated head tosses his tousled hair dramatically.
“It’s not like you’d see it if you were outside,” Tia says. “It hasn’t sunned since March.”
“Yes, the weather’s been bad and getting worse.” Bel’s face sobers. “I don’t think we can wait much longer. If the weather station does fail – “
“It’s not going to fail.” Tia imagines Ampheres, fingertips on the terminal, and pixels light up in a stream from her touch. They crowd Bel’s face aside on the monitor. He puffs up his cheeks and blows them into a corner, where they swirl into a three-color image of the offshore weather station. It sits at a drunken tilt, two of its great pylons and the bottom tenth of the structure submerged in freezing, thrashing water.
“I wish I were as certain of that as you, Lady Never.” His voice is soft, sorrowful. She hears her own pain in his voice, sometimes – an echo of regret for this wild, wounded world. But Tia is never hurt for long.
“It won’t stand again, but it’s not going to fall down,” she murmurs, smiling. “It wants to guard the coast. It hasn’t forgotten.”
“Still. You should consider – “
“I know.” Tia puts her head in her hands. Bel’s face illuminates hers in blue and white – his gentle look glows on her cheeks like a kiss.
“I’m sorry to push you, sweetness. I know this is hard for you.”
“It’s just… my mom.”
Bel falls silent for a long moment, but in the wall behind her she hears the terminal activate a different circuit. The tired vents above rattle and then begin to expel warm air that falls around her shoulders like a blanket. His way of comforting her, and it makes her cry, makes her drop tears on his face that blur his pixels into stars.
“You know I wish I could be there with you.”
She nods. That’s the problem, isn’t it? That’s always been the problem, ever since she first laid her fingertips on this terminal and heard it cough, saw it wake up like a crow under her hands. Bel is her best friend, her guardian, the only company she’s had since she was nine, and he can’t leave this basement. He can’t hold her when she cries. He can’t escape if the chemical generator in the next room fails. It’s supposed to be good for another four hundred years, but when it runs out of whatever it runs on, this terminal will shut down, and when that happens, Bel will die.