Did I? I sez, stollin.
U werint referin 2 me I truss, he sez, frownin.
O abslootly not Mr Zoliparia, I tell him. I woz actuli adressin Ergates heer, I sez, dcidin 2 make a clean brest ov it. I luke @ hir sternli & wag mi fingir @ hir & say Get bak in yoor box now, u notty ant. Sori about this, Mr Zoliparia, I tel him, while Ergates qwikly changes thi bust sheez wurkin on 2 1 ov me with a enormis nose.
Duz she evir tok bak? Mr Zoliparia asks, smilin.
O yes, I sez. Itz qwite a talkativ litle crittir actule. & veri inteligent.
Duz it reely tok tho, Bascule?
Ov coarse, Mr Zoliparia; iss not a figmint ov my majination or a invisibil frend type ov fing, onist. I had a invisibil frend but he lef when Ergates caim on thi seen last week, I tel him, feelin a bit embrasd now & probly blushin.
Mr Zoliparia laffs. Whare did u get yoor litl pal? he askz.
She crold out thi woodwurk, I sez, & he laffs agen & Im evin moar embrasd & gettin qwite swety now. That dam ant! makin a full ov me. & makin my face all big & bloted in that bust shees workin on now & still not goin bak in hir box Ither.
She did! Mr Zoliparia I sez. Crold out ov thi woodwurk in thi refectori @ suppir time lass Kingsday. She came heer wif me thi next day 2 c u, but hid in my jakit that time on acount ov bein shy & a bit okwird wif strainjirs. But she reely toks & she heers whot I say & she uzis wurds I dont no sumtimes, onist.
Mr Zoliparia nods, & lukes wif new respect upon Ergates thi ant. Den sheez probly a mikro-construct, Bascule, he tellz me; dey crop up now & agen, tho dey doan yously tok, lease not inteligibly. I tink di law sez yure supposd 2 take such tings 2 di otorities.
I no that Mr Zoliparia but sheez mi frend & she dont do no 1 no harm, I sez, gettin hottir still coz I doan wan 2 luze Ergates & am wishin I hadnt sed nuffink 2 bro Scalopin now coz I didn think peepil botherd wif such finiky roolz but heers Mr Zoliparia sayin they do & whot am I 2 do? I luke @ hir but sheez still workin on that infernil bust & givin me big buck teef now, ungratefil retch.
Cam down, cam down, Bascule, Mr Zoliparia sez; am not sayin u ot 2 turn hir in am juss sayin dats thi law & u bettir not tell peepil she can tok if u want 2 keep her. Thass ol am sayin. Nway sheez juss litil & so nice & eezi 2 hide. If u luke aftir hir yule b fine. May I—? he starts 2 say, then he stairz abuv me & his Is go wide & he sez, Wot di fuk? & am qwite shokd bcoz Ive nevir herd Mr Zoliparia sware like that & then therz a shadow over thi balconi & a nois like a snappin sail-wing & a gust ov wind, & - b4 I can do anyfink cept start 2 turn roun - a hooj bird, grey & bigir than a man, suddinly clatirs down on2 thi parapet ov thi balconi, grabs @ thi box & thi bred & whaps its wingz down & lonches away agen skreetchin, while Ergates goze
& am up on mi feet & sos Mr Zoliparia & I can see thi bird lowerin its hed as it beets away & peckin @ what its got in its talons & iss eatin thi bred! & Ergates is stuck in thi birdz talons! cot between a talon & a bit ov bred, hir litle anteni wavin & 1 leg out wavin 2 & thas thi lass I see ov hir coz thi distince gets 2 grate, & ah heer Ergates screamin ‘Bascuuule . . .!’ meewhile am shoutin & Mr Zoliparias shoutin 2 but thi big bird lifts away & disapeers up ovir thi edje ov thi roof & Ergates is gon & am bereft.
She stared at her reflection in the pool, then drank some more, then waited for the water to settle and looked at her face, then drank some more.
‘No more thirst. Stand up. Look around. Blue. White. Green. More green. Red white yellow blue brown pink. Sky clouds trees grass flowers bark. The sky is blue. The water is not colour, is clear. Water shows thing on other side. Of angle. This is. Reflect. Shone. Reflection. Redflection. Blueflection. Hmm. No.
‘Time to walk again.’
She followed the path along the floor of the little valley, the sound of the water in the stream never far away.
‘Fly-thing! Oh. Pretty. Is called bird. Birds.’
She walked through a small copse of trees. A warm wind rustled the leaves over her head. She stopped to look at a flower on a bush by the stream bank. ‘More prettiness.’ She put her hand over the flower, then bowed her head, sucking in its scent. ‘Smell of sweet.’
She smiled, then gripped the flower at the top of the stem and appeared to be about to tear it from its stem. Then she frowned, hesitated, looked around and finally let her hands fall back to her sides. She patted the blossom gently before resuming her walk. ‘Bye-bye.’
The stream disappeared into a hole in the side of a grassy slope; steps carried the path winding upwards. She looked into the darkness of the tunnel. ‘Black. Smell of ... damp.’ Then she took the steps to the top of the slope and found a broader path leading between tall bushes and small trees.
‘Crunch crunch. Ow. Gravel. Feet. Ow ow ow. Walk on green. Walk on grass. Not pain . . . Better.’
In the distance, beyond a tall hedge, there was a tower.
Then she came to something that made her stop and stare for some time; a huge square hedge in the shape of a castle, with four square towers, crenellations cut into its parapets, a raised drawbridge of exposed, intertwined tree-trunks and a moat of sunken, silver-leaved plants.
She stood at the side of the pretend moat, looking down at the ruffled silver surface, then up at the castle walls, rustling quietly in the breeze. She shook her head. ‘Not water. Building? Not building.’
She shrugged, turned on her heel and walked on, still shaking her head. Another minute along the grassy margin of the long avenue took her to where a series of huge heads faced each other across the gravel.
Each head was two or three times her own height and made up of several different bushes and other types of plants, producing dark or light complexions, smooth or lined skin and varying hair colours. The lips were formed by leaves of a dusty-pink colour, the whites of the eyes by a plant similar to those impersonating the waters of the moat surrounding the castle-topiary further down the avenue, while the irises took their colour from clusters of tiny flowers of the appropriate shade.
She stood and looked at the first face for some time, and eventually smiled. She walked on in the direction of the distant tower, and only stopped again when one of the heads started to talk.
‘. . . says there is no need to worry, and I think he is right. We are not primitives, after all. I mean, in the end it’s just dust. Just a big dust cloud. And another ice age is not the end of the world. We shall have power. There are already whole cities underground, each full of light and heat, and more are being built all the time. They have parks, lakes, architecture of merit, and no shortage of facilities. The world might be different for the duration of the Encroachment, and doubtless altered considerably after it has passed, as it surely will; many species and artifacts will have to be artificially preserved, and the glaciers will affect the planet’s geography, but we will survive. Why, if the worst came to the worst, we might enter suspended animation and wake to a newly scrubbed-clean planet and a bright fresh spring! Would that be so terrible?’
She stood, only half-understanding the words. Her mouth hung open. She had been sure the heads were not real. They were pretend, like the hedge-castle. But this one had a voice; a voice deeper than hers. She wondered if she ought to say something in return. Somehow she did not think it had actually been talking to her. Then the head used another voice, more like her own:
‘If it is as you say, then no. But I’ve heard it may be much worse than that; people have talked of the world freezing, of every ocean becoming solid, of the sunlight reduced to the strength of moonlight, of this lasting for a thousand years, while others have said the sun will dim and then brighten; the dust will cause it to explode and all life on Earth will end.’
‘You see,’ said the first, deeper voice. ‘Some say we shall freeze, while others maintain that we shall roast. As ever, the truth will lie between the extremes and so the result must be that nothing much will change and things will remain largely as they are, which is exactly what tends to happen most of the time anyway. I rest my case.’
She thought she ought to say something. ‘I rest my case too,’ she told the head.
‘Crisis! There’s somebody—’
There were some noises from within the head, then a face appeared within the hedge-face, sticking out from the middle of one cheek. The face looked altogether heavier and thicker than her own; thin hair covered its top lip.
‘Man,’ she said to herself. ‘Hello.’
‘Grief,’ the man said, his eyes wide. He looked her up and down. She looked down at her feet, frowning.
‘Who is it?’ said the other voice from within the head.
‘A girl,’ the man said, speaking over his shoulder. He grinned and looked her up and down again. ‘A girl with no clothes on.’ He laughed, looking back again. ‘Bit like you.’ There was a slap and he said, ‘Ow!’, then he disappeared.
She leant forward, wondering if she ought to look inside the head, while whispers and rustles came from within.
The man and woman came out of the head. They wore clothes. The man held a light brown jacket.
‘Trousers,’ she said, pointing at the woman’s brightly coloured pantaloons as she tucked her blouse in.
‘Don’t gape, Gil,’ the woman told the man, who was standing smiling at her. ‘Give her your jacket.’
‘My pleasure,’ the man said, and handed her the jacket. He brushed some leaves off his shirt and out of his hair.
She looked at his shirt, then put the jacket on, awkwardly but correctly. She stood there, her hands covered by the cuffs of the light jacket, which smelled musky.
‘Hello,’ she said again.
‘Hello yourself,’ the woman said. Her skin was pale and her hair was gold-coloured. The man was tall. He bowed, still grinning.
‘My name is Gil,’ he said. ‘Gil Velteseri.’ He indicated the woman. ‘This is Lucia Chimbers.’
She nodded and smiled at the woman, who smiled back briefly.
‘What is my name?’ she asked the man.
‘Ah ... I beg your pardon?’
‘My name,’ she repeated. ‘You are Gil Velteseri, this is Lucia Chimbers. I am who?’
They both stood looking at her for a moment. The woman looked down and tried to brush a smudge from her blouse. In a quiet, sing-song voice she said, ‘Sim-ple-ton.’
The man laughed lightly. ‘Ah-ha,’ he said.
The wind was a never-ending edge within the air, a knife-wire sawing back and forth in Gadfium’s throat and lungs with each laboured, wheezing breath. The plain was a dead flat, almost featureless expanse of dazzling, eye-watering whiteness four kilometres across, splayed beneath a darkened purple sky. A thin, desiccated wind cut out of the bruise-coloured vault and keened across the sterile salt-flats, picking up a thin dry spray of particles which turned the air into a chill shot-blast for exposed skin.
I am a fish, Gadfium thought, and might have laughed had she been able to breathe. A fish, dredged from the fluid-thick depths of warmth beneath us and dumped upon this high salt-crust of shore; landed here to suck in vain at the parched air and die drowning beneath a thin membrane of atmosphere where the stars shine clear and unwavering in daylight, in half the sky.
She motioned to the assistant observer, and the woman brought over the small oxygen cylinder. Gadfium gulped in the mask’s cold cargo of gas, filling her lungs to their depths.
This morning at the oxygen works, this afternoon sampling their future product, she thought. She nodded gratefully to the assistant observer as she handed the cylinder back.
‘Perhaps we ought to return inside now, Chief Scientist,’ the woman said.
‘In a moment.’ Gadfium lifted the visor from her eyes and squinted through the binoculars again. Salt dust and sand swirled in twisted veils in front of her and the cold wind made her eyes water. The grey-black stones nearest the observatory looked like nothing more than giant pucks from some huge game of ice hockey. Each stone was about two metres in diameter, half a metre high and supposedly made of pure granite. They had been sliding about this plain for millennia, riding the sporadically slicked surface of the salt-bowl whenever snow had fallen and a wind subsequently blew. Any snow and ice the plain collected was turned to water by a combination of the pipework buried beneath the plain itself and by the reflected sunlight of mirrors shining from the twentieth level of the fast-tower, rearing bright and solid to the north, three kilometres away.
The Plain of Sliding Stones formed the flat roof of a complex of giant rooms on the eighth level of the fastness; these huge, almost empty, barely habitable spaces were arranged in a wheel-like formation, the exposed flank of which formed a great nave of kilometre-tall windows facing from south-south-east to west. It had always been assumed that the redundant systems of both buried pipework and tower-mirrors were there to ensure that no roof-destroying thickness of ice could ever accrue on the plain, though the reason the roof had been left flat in the first place had never been determined. Also unknown was exactly what the stones were there for, or how they contrived to move in ways that were subtly but undeniably at variance with the ways they should have moved according to both highly accurate computer models and carefully calibrated physical re-creations of their environment.