Guts

Bach followed after the Diaz sisters as they drew him ever deeper into the guts of the seafaring city of Overjordan.  They’d continued what seemed as far down as the elevator could possibly carry them, likely quite a ways below sea level, before marching out and down curved halls — these crossed repeatedly by other straight halls that shot out like spokes from the center of a wheel.

Bach eventually gave up at estimating just how far from the city’s center they’d walked, nearly bowling Laney over when the pair of druids came to a sudden stop near a wide pair of sliding doors.

“Here’s one of four,” Haley announced with little by way of context.  Even as she approached, a pulsing red figment burst into being precisely halfway between floor and ceiling.  The iconic warning hovering before them bore the international symbol representing the presence on nano-machines within.  “Admit Archdruid Diaz and company,” Haley ordered the door.

“Signature?”  The door itself did not come equipped with speakers of any sort.  The voice was a figment, overlaid upon their natural sense of hearing by their wetware.  Even as it asked, an impossibly distorted virtual question replaced the nanoware hazard icon.  Bach wanted to look away, but curiosity over what her signature’s chosen shape might be kept his eyes from dodging to far afield.

Haley rose a hand and, even as her palm opened, another eye-bending figment appeared between her spreading fingers — the fragment that would complete her personal ethereal signature.  She pushed it toward the other, merging the two into a lazily rotating green gemstone identical to the one always present in the air above and between her eyebrows.

Noticing the resemblance, it only then occurred to Bach that he’d already grown so used to seeing her always-worn figment gemstone that he'd taken to overlooking it altogether.  Following that, Bach wondered absently at what its significance might be to this young druid woman.

Signature fragments joined successfully, the door slid open to reveal a largish and dimly lit room beyond.  Out in the relative brightness of the hall, Bach instinctively squinted, but could make little out of what lay within.  Haley crossed through with little hesitation, and Laney fell in closely behind her.  Bach took a breath before following, allowing the door ti slide shut behind him.

“Can’t see much,” he said, only to be answered by myriad lesser copies of his own voice in echo.  Not having to compete with the whitish brightness from outside, the dim permeation of light inside took on a blueish-green tint, seeming almost to crawl slowly up the walls as his vision adjusted.  Nearer the door, the room remained largely wide open but, just a few paces farther back, tilted glassy tubes penetrated both floor and ceiling.

At least, their outer shells shone like glass.  One could see intensified refractions of the dull ambient light along their edges.  Between these brightened edges, only a strangely animated blackness could be seen.

“Lights,” Laney called out — and then light there was.  Even as her voice reflected back at her from multiple directions and with multiple volumes, the dim aqua tones brightened whiter at a pace designed to be comfortable for the eyes.  Soon, Bach realized that the room was a lot larger than he’d originally guessed.

Bach wandered toward one of the closest tubes.  What before had appeared to be nothing but an impossibly black solid mass inside now shone with iridescent reflections, not unlike oil spread across the surface of water.

“A cross section of the city’s digestive system, then?”  Bach thought he understood what he was seeing here.

“Aye,” Haley answered, pausing at the interruption of Bach’s echoes, as well as her own soon thereafter.  She lowered her voice before continuing.  “Damaged parts, old supplies, waste, sewage, et cetera.  These recyclers break it all down and distribute the raw materials for reuse throughout the city… or even for sale to the mainland where they may not be directly needed here.”  She waved an arm even as she walked past him.  “Soup’s in back.”

“Right,” Bach answered, following behind her.

Pulling up the rear, close behind Bach, Laney asked a question.  “What keeps the indieware from recycling these circulatory tubes, anyways?”

Bach tossed a glance over his shoulder, but with the forest of slanting tubes growing thicker in the direction they walked, he turned his eyes quickly forward again.  With all the footsteps echoing back to them, it sounded to him as though an army hid themselves amongst these reflective structures.

“They… the nanomachines, I mean… they have their instructions specifically,” he said.  “As long as the crystal is made of the correct substance, and uniformly… well, the nanites can just be told not to break it down.”

“I see.”

“In fact,” Bach continued, “if it were me, I would have tossed into these posses a fraction of a percent of assemblers bent on repairing the tubes at all times.”

Haley jumped into the conversation, looking backwards out of one corner of her eye.  “I’m pretty sure we do that,” she said in a matter of fact way.  “We’re almost there.”

On they walked, perhaps another fifty paces or so, before the tubes punching through floor and ceiling gave way to expansive glass-capped vats full of more rainbow-tinted sand — if much brighter in albedo than the contents of the artificial guts now behind them.

A pair of thinner tubes entered and exited each vat, and toward each Haley pointed.  “Coming in over here is a tiny fraction of recycled materials we allow to supplement the nano soup… extend the lifetime of the supply by a decent percentage.”

“Clever,” Bach felt compelled to comment.

“Aye,” Haley returned.  “It’s been a part of the design since the city was built, but had lain largely dormant since before I took my first lowly office in this city.  Don’t ask me why.  Since putting it back to use, we generally widen our purchase windows by half a month or so.  At any rate,” she continued, pointing at the tubes exiting the other side, “the soup goes from here, through there, and into the growth vats back there.”

Bach stepped closer, leaning out over the glass covering the nearest soup vat.  This angle lessened the distortion, allowing him to read the rings exposed in the vat floor by how far the soup levels had declined.  Shaped something like a very wide and shallow funnel, the vat would be full right up to the edge after a fresh delivery of the stuff.

As the basic and widely approved building material for nano machines is slowly consumed, the level lowers and the slanting vat floor is revealed.  Bach had seen similar storage mechanisms in a few other industrial locales as well.

“Every soup vat in the city,” Haley continued, “is maintained at the same level, so what you see here is the same in all eighty.”

“If you weren’t supplementing the supply with recycler runoff,” Bach observed, “it looks like you have three or four months left.”  At least, that was he’d read from the exposed rings he saw through the glass cap.

“Aye,” Haley said before turning to Laney.  “My instinct says to give him half right now.”  Bach pulled away from the glass, looking from one sister to the other.

“Hah,” Laney barked out a laugh.  “It’s your call, Hales.  But if you are asking, that sounds safe to me.  Leaves us a good margin, and we can go either way after that.  Leaves us an operational supply as much as it allows us more to give Sir Kavanagh, later, if need be.  Maybe half again after, unless we ship in more.”

“Right,” returned Haley.

Bach leaned back out over the vat’s glass top, pressing his forehead into the surface for a better look.  “The measures are volumetric,” he complained.  “Depending on the soup manufacturer, and what recycled mats you’ve been dumping in with it, that volume inside could weigh anything.”

“Laney,” Haley spoke up.  “Please give Bach authorization.”

“Aye,” her sister replied.  Laney grabbed at Bach’s wrist and pulled him aside even as she summoned up a figment interface with a quick flick of her free hand.

While they worked the authority interface, Haley approached the vat Bach had only just been inspecting.  “Vat… please tell me the mass of your contents at this time.”

Bach listened, watching out of the corner of his eye as much out of interest in Haley’s inquiry as desire to avoid looking at the incomplete form of his signature being incorporated into the virtual interface.

Almost instantly, the vat’s figment voice replied, “one hundred and forty one kilograms.”

“That doesn’t sound like all that much,” Bach blurted out even as he finished registering with whatever subset of city systems the Diaz sisters had just granted him access to.  He dismissed the temptation to ask as there would be better times for that.  “I have think; with one template…”  His voice trailed off.

“How about an even fifty six hundred kilos,” Laney offered.  “That’s almost half of the city’s total reserves.”

Haley nodded her approval, even as Bach expressed his surprise.  “You’re fast.”

Laney only laughed at that.  “No no, I’m terrible at math.  I just summoned the figure.”

“Cheater,” Bach bit off the word deliberately.

“Oh ho,” the younger Diaz hooted.  “So he does have a sense of humor after all.”

Bach’s surprise must have been painted across his face, as both women broke out in chuckles.  “Sorry,” Haley offered as she snatched sudden control from her previous mirth.  “Bad time for humor, I know.  It’s a defense mechanism.  I hardly got any sleep on the way over, what with sour nightmares about water coming in at me from all directions.”

Bach understood that.  “That’s fuzzy,” he said.  “I don’t think I dreamed at all.”  At least, he couldn’t remember having dreamed.  Still, having said that, Bach wondered at the unreadable expression that crept over Haley’s face as he said it.  That is, until she turned to look back out across the vats that dominated the rear end of the massive room.

For a long moment, the young Archdruid stood there, arms crossed beneath her chest.  She seemed to be looking at nothing in particular out there, at least so far as Bach could tell.  After several lingering moments of silence, Haley finally spoke.  “I just summoned a calculation of my own,” she said with a tone quite possibly wrung dry of all emotion.  “With just one template, and assuming poor growth conditions, we’re talking a full month of production time.”

Bach had to jump in at that.  “Probably a day or two less, actually.”  When both women turned to look at him directly, he lost his words, if only for a moment.  “I mean,” he elaborated, “there will be some loss of mass in production.  Depending on the quality of the soup, you may get as little as eighty five percent back… and certainly no more than ninety five.”

“I see,” Haley nodded along with her acknowledgment.  “And how do recyclers compare in size to the materials in the soup itself?”

“Also depends on the soup.  The lower quality stuff takes up more space, and would be volumetrically equivalent to the nanites that are grown from it.  Add maybe ten percent.”  This sort of stuff, at least, Bach knew something about.

“Honestly,” Laney stepped in to say, “We get our soup from multiple suppliers.  We started mixing the stuff just because there were volume imbalances in the vats.”

“Aye,” Haley added.  “Few corporations make enough of the stuff to satisfy an entire city’s needs.  And we’re not the only city on the ocean, much less on land.”

Bach nodded, knowing this all to well.  In all likelyhood, his own family business likely supplied a fraction of what this very city consumed each year.

Haley continued, “Let’s just redistribute all city digestion through every other coil, and loop off the rest into a new tract.  Is it safe to grow this grand posse right in the forty vats we can give you, Sir Kavanagh?”

Bach’s eyes had been wandering until he heard the question.  Turning back to the young Archdruid, he gave his answer.

“There’s no harm in it.  But this template,” he said, hoisting up the metallic case he carried, “will only work through an interfacing plug.  I assume Overjordan must have such a physical interface patched right into this digestion tract of hers.  And with only one template, only one plug can be used.  Rather, the soup will have to be circulated between all the vats that are going to be connected to it.”

“I’m sure that’ll be fine,” Haley answered.  “Laney, can I get you to work the arrangements with the city intellect and any dependent departments or clients?”

“Sure ‘nuff,” her sister replied.  “Now?”

“If you would…”  Haley breathed out as if finished, but then caught herself.  “Wait up,” she said.  “Which case holds the recycler template?  I have the unopenable one.”

“And I’ve got the assembler template,” Bach answered.

“Alright.  I don’t see any immediate need for assemblers.  If you two will trade, and Laney if you will also take mine.  Arrange an apartment for Sir Kavanagh… somewhere near ours, if you can.”  The three of them shuffled old aluminum briefcases.  “And, after those tasks, take a nap when you are satisfied.”

The younger druid barked out a quick laugh.  “I’m there.”  Laney bowed to Bach before turning her back to the pair, wandering off in the general direction from which they’d all come.

“Bach,” Haley said, bringing his attention back to her.  “There are two plugs per quad.  They’re up next, just past the vats.”  She stretched out an arm, gesturing for him to walk along side her.  After a good ten paces following the periphery of the first vat, she spoke again.  “I know I’ve tossed out some ideas,” she said, “but we need to devise a real plan.”

“For dealing with the methane in the water?”  Bach followed after her.

“Aye,” was the whole of her reply.  The pair walked past several more rows of wide crystal-capped vats, each sunk well into the floor, and each with refractive tubes entering and exiting oppositely.  Meanwhile, echoes of their footsteps continued to follow after them.

Just past the last row and not too far from the back wall, a station of consoles stood — likely the very physical interface that had been designed with these templates in mind.

“Here we go,” Haley announced, confirming Bach’s unspoken assumption.

Thin glassy tubes passed through the interface, but other than that, there was nothing too unusual about it.  “This looks fairly standard,” Bach said, putting his impression into words as he approached.  Taking advantage of a small flat space off to one side, he set down the aluminum briefcase before tapping at the seal just behind the handle.  “Unseal for Bach Kavanagh,” he told it.

“Signature?”  The figment voice came in reply to his command, immediately producing the unpleasant and incomplete half of his ‘sig’ out of thin air.  Bach summoned his fragment as quickly as he could, and pushed the two together.  A moment later, his personal blue bubble resulted from the virtual merger, the seal snapped upwards, and the case cracked open about a centimeter or so.  Bach pulled it open the rest of the way even as Haley approached, a look of curiosity clear on her face.  She returned his sidelong glance with a quick one of her own.

Inside, nestled into a perfectly shaped depression cut out of a dark tan foam, lay an object shaped something like the old syringes Bach remembered from his childhood years.  At least, whenever he looked upon a template like this, that is what came to mind, though there was no needle at its end — just a long and thin metallic tube with a rubbery handle at the top and a shining golden nipple of sorts at the bottom.

“I take it that a nanite template isn’t a nanite itself, then.”  Haley asked this as her face hovered just off his left shoulder, her voice pulling back his sideways glance.

“Well,” Bach began to say even as he removed the object from its nest in the foam, “there are nanites inside the tube.  Assemblers, actually.  This casing, itself, acts as a local governor in directing the nanites inside in their constructions.  That’s why there’s a bit of waste in the process.  Some of the soup’s mass is used to fuel this special posse, and keep its population forever intact.”

Haley turned around, and leaned to half sit upon the small table top, raising her gaze somewhat to look directly into his eyes.  Once well balanced, she crossed her arms as she spoke.

“I didn’t realize that nano-machines were used to build other nano-machines.  Though, I suppose that would be the easiest way,” she admitted, trailing off speculatively.  “I assume template plugs like that one are the exception to the rule.”

Bach knew what it was she was getting at.  “That’s right.  These plugs are the only means by which nanos are allowed to create other nanos.  Period.  And, each and every single one of these things is not only registered with each and every single nation on the face of the planet, but will only respond to a very very few authorized personnel.  My Dad and I are the only ones allowed to use any of the templates owned by American Telepresence, and no others owned by any other corporation, organization, or government.”

“That’s at once both understandable,” Haley replied, “and unfortunate.”  Dropping her head to look down the length of her body toward the floor, she let her chin rest on her collar-bone.  “If we could just turn loose the assembler nanites that we might have grown from the template in your other case… rather, drop them with instructions right into our soup vats… well, we might have fourty-eight hundred or more kilograms of recyclers ready to go in no time at all.  A month is far too long for us to sit around while the gulf is invaded by methanotrophs.”

“Eh?”  Bach wasn’t quite sure that he’d heard that last word right.  “What?”

“Methane eating bacteria, I mean.”

“Oh.”  Bach returned.  “Well, while it is too bad, it also happens to be intensely illegal… a capitol offense in some parts of the world.”

“So I’ve heard,” she replied almost absently.

Bach went to flip open the hatch that hid the plug socket, but found it just as tightly sealed as everything else down here.  “I assume that authorization process with your sister back there will let me use this?”

Haley brought her head up with a jerk, seemingly wrenched free of some deep thought.  “Wha?  Oh, yes… you’re good.”

Bach only nodded to her before asking the interface to unseal.  When it asked, he gave his name, “Bach Alan Kavanagh.”  Immediately thereafter, his incomplete signature appeared, and he pushed his half into it, completing proof of his authority.  The hatch popped open on its own, revealing the socket set into the physical interface at an angle.  It was empty, of course.  “Okay, I’m going to plug the template in,” he announced.

“Go ahead,” Haley almost whispered.  For a few moments, she only watched as Bach slipped the template into the socket but, as he moved to reseal the hatch, she spoke again.  “No instruction needed?”

“Naw,” he replied while still fussing over the hatch.  “A template can only make one brand of nanite.  It’s yet another dire regulation.  The recycler posse that results is highly scriptable, though.”

“Mm.  I knew that much, at least.  The tech side of things really isn’t my strong point,” she offered by way of admission.

Bach didn’t really have anything clever to say about that.  Instead, he offered sage instruction.  “Just make sure no more soup flows through here than the template can handle.  We can start at eight kilos per hour, probably, and adjust up or down depending on the results.”

“Sounds good.”

Bach looked over at the brown haired woman with the figment emerald hovering just off her forehead.  She’d been full of words not so long before, but had since grown distant — or despondent, perhaps.  Bach wondered enough to ask, “You alright, Lady Diaz?”

Again, Haley looked up from the lazy inspection of her toes.  “What?”

“Are you alright?”

“Oh… yeah.”  Her pause had Bach less than convinced.  “I’m tired… a little overwhelmed… and still trying to think about what our plan should be.  You’re sure that pretty much whatever we do down there with these guys, these little buggers are the ones we need to be making, right?”

Bach nodded to her.  “There’s very little that recyclers can’t break down.”

“Break down, you say,” she repeated as her the attention drifted away once again.  After a moment, her eyes snapped back to him.  “The template is in?”

“It’s snug.  Now that it’s snapped into its socket, its contents will do their work as soon as there’s soup to process.”  Bach stepped a pace away from the machine.

Haley pushed herself upright soon after.  “Then there’s no further need to stand around.  Let’s get out of here.”  She took one loud step before halting once more.  “How about some breakfast?”

“Yeah, alright.”  Bach would not have expected to feel hungry at this early hour, but at the very mention of food he found that he was, and more than a little.  “What’ve you guys got here?”

Haley grinned widely at him.  "Believe it or not, we grow our own eggs.  And, of course, we have fish and lobster up the yin yang.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Bach moved to collect the empty aluminum briefcase, but stopped short.  “Is there any reason why this wouldn’t be safe down here?  It oughtn’t be too far separated from its template.”

“Yeah, that’s fine.  There’s no one with access to the city’s guts that I don’t trust… much less have any reason, whatsoever, to hike all the way back here from the front.”

“Well enough,” Bach replied.  He decided, at the very least, to snap the seal shut.  “Let’s eat.”

Haley moved off with such bounce to her step, Bach would have thought her on some terribly important mission.  He had to jaunt several long paces to catch up with her.  As soon as he slowed to match her energetic pace, she turned her head just enough to speak out of the corner of her mouth.  “Even the thought of food gives me energy.”

“Hah,” he breathed out.  “I was just thinking that might be the case.”

She only looked at him, but there was humor in her eyes.  The trek back through the forest of crystalline tubes felt longer to him on the way out than it had the first time through, what with neither of them speaking the whole while.  If anything, the army of footsteps echoing back at them had Bach feeling almost mesmerized as he walked.

Eventually they reached the sliding exit doors, which opened for them without a challenge.  Folk may exit freely, so it seemed to Bach, but they could not enter without proof of their authority to do so.

From there, the pair meandered through curving halls — that is, when they did not cut straight across along the spoke-like lanes between them.  An older looking man with precious little hair popped out of one door as they passed, but he had been the only other person Bach had seen since they’d first come down here.

“Here we are,” Haley said suddenly.  After so long in silence, her voice startled him.  “We’ll go to my office which is nearer the central ‘vators than my apartments.”

She waved a hand near the figment hovering between the twin panels of the sliding elevator doors.  At her touch, the icon instantly broke out into a pulsing yellow.  “Guess we’ll have to wait,” she said in reaction to that.  “You know, if I’d thought of it, I could have just arranged for your rooms myself, on the way.  Still, if I know my sister, she’ll probably not be long about it as she does so love to sleep.”

Bach nodded to each individual statement, having nothing particularly enlightening to say in response.  Then the door snapped open almost inaudibly.  Haley motioned for him to enter first, which he did, just as it occurred to him to ask, “How far down are we?”  He had been wondering.

Haley stepped into the elevator and let the doors snap shut.  She did not speak first by way of reply, but instead snatched a figment out of thin air.  “This is Overjordan,” she said, pulling at its edges in order to expand the ethereal model.  Following that, she let go and let it drift in the air.  “We arrived up here and… are now right here.”  Each time she spoke, she pointed through the model and, wherever her finger went, the city’s skin faded away to reveal the inner workings.  “We’re about twenty stories below sea level.”

Bach could have gasped, if he were prone to that kind of outburst.  “Holy…”

The young Archdruid chuckled as she waved the figment city out of existence.  “Aye.  One of the reasons the city is so stable is simply because it displaces so much damn ocean water… which, by the way, is also naturally more buoyant because of the saline content.”  Just then, she must have realized that they’d not yet felt the elevator begin to climb.  “Dang,” she uttered.  “Take us to Nevada.”

“Nevada?” Bach had to ask, feeling new motion in the pit of his stomach.

“Aye.  Every floor above sea level… in the core, that is… every floor is named after a province in the Union.”

“I see.  So which is Nevada, then?”

Haley brought a finger up to her pursed lips for a moment before dropping it again.  “You know, I don’t really know.”

Bach found that funny.  “I guess as long as you know which floor is yours, you don’t need a number.”

“Exactly.  No one around here even asks those kind of questions.”  The humor in her stance lingered for a while as they waited but, before long, the way she shifted her weight from one leg to another told Bach of her escalating impatience.  “I’m starving,” she admitted before too long.

The trip to ‘Nevada’ took nearly a minute.  Without any indication of floors being passed, this had Bach wondering just how fast the elevator moved.  How many floors are there in total?  Does every province have a floor?  The central hub didn’t seem nearly tall enough for that, Bach contemplated.  “Do the floors below sea level have names?”

Haley looked almost grateful for something to talk about.  “Aye,” she answered.  “Appropriately enough, they bear the names of oceans, seas, lakes and rivers.”

“Of course,” Bach exhaled.  Just then, the doors snapped open again.  “Oh,” he uttered in almost-surprise.

Haley stepped out first before turning to wait.  “This way,” she invited with an accompanying gesture of the hand.

Bach nodded wordlessly before he fell into step beside her again.  As it was below, spoke-like halls intersected with curving ones that Bach assumed must encircle the city core’s inner workings like the layers of a sliced onion.

Haley followed the curved innermost hall clockwise until she reached the second straight hall to shoot straight away from the city axis.  She marched along as far as the straight-away’s intersection with the eighth circular hall, at which point she guided him to their left.

After some twenty-odd doors passed, the Archdruid paused in front of one that looked no different than any other.  That is, until they drew near.  In their presence, a figment sign appeared above the door’s handle.  ‘Archdruid Haley Sky Diaz,’ it read.

“Don’t make fun of my middle name,” she warned him with a grin that belied the tone of her voice.  She grabbed the door handle, pushed, and walked inside.  After all the figment interfaces used throughout the city, Bach thought such a simple metallic knob to be very much out of place.

Inside, however, was wholly another matter.  Where a fairly normal room might have been expected, there was a single desk surrounded by hilly forest — rather, the figment representation of one.  “Where is this,” he asked.

“Blue Hill,” she answered without hestitation.  “Up the hill behind my mother’s house.”

Bach looked from side to side, but had to turn fully back toward the door through which they’d passed before he caught the first glimpse of the Atlantic — and not much of it at that.  “She doesn’t live too near the coast then.”

“No, thank god,” came the young Archdruid’s reply.  Only then did Bach realize the weight of the subject matter.  “None of the tsunami came that far inland,” Haley added.

“That’s good,” Bach said quietly.  “You want the door closed?”

“Sure,” she replied.  It just seemed so out of place for the view through a hallway door — almost featureless but for being lined by plant-pot insets in the far wall — to be seen between a pair of stunted maple trees barely eking nourishment from the soil accumulated in the cracks between exposed granite bedrock.

Bach walked back and pushed the door gently shut, letting the figment scenery reconnected seamlessly once again, no longer looking incomplete.

“Is this real time?”  Bach felt compelled to ask, since the scene suggested that dawn was imminent.

“That it is,” Haley replied, not really paying him or the scenery all that much attention.  She’d drifted over to the wooden-looking desk that sat in the middle of it all, very much out of place.  Still, it seemed she surmised just why it had been that he’d asked.  “Our timing is good.  What do you want to eat, anyways?  Given the work you’ll be doing for us, I don’t think anyone will complain, even if,” she stressed, “we drag something rare out of storage.”

Bach thought about it, if only shortly.  “Actually, a well-fried egg with a side of any locally grown fish sounds just about right to me.”

“No lobster, then?”

“I don’t like the stuff,” was his only reply to that.

Haley looked up at him briefly.  He’d only just caught her looking from out of the corner of his eye, his attention otherwise spent on the setting that surrounded them.  “You are from Maine, right?”

Bach found that an odd question.  “Uh huh… born and raised.  Why?”

She bent back to her inspection of the mess that buried her desktop.  “Oh, I’ve just never heard of a Mainer who didn’t like to eat lobster.”  After a pause, she added, “First time for everything, I suppose.”