Tower

Bach awoke with a start, nearly falling right off the side of his strange new bed.  Not moments before, he’d felt convinced he was about to be drowned under hundreds of meters of near icy ocean water but, even as he scrambled upright, the memory of the dream faded.  “Sour,” Bach cursed softly to himself, rubbing at his tired eyes.  Opening them once again to an unfamiliar room, it took him more than a few moments to gather his wits and his bearings.  A strong shaft of afternoon sunlight streamed in through the sliding glass doors just beyond his new apartment bedroom.

Drawn to that sunlight, Bach abandoned any further attempt at sleep.  Instead, wandering out into the main room, he gave the place another quick examination.  The space, though small, felt awfully clean to him.  New, even.  The city itself probably isn’t much older than ten years, he supposed.  It certainly hadn’t been one of the first that put out to sea.

Pushing the sliding glass doors apart, Bach stepped out onto the balcony and, once again, took in the panorama with awe.  His family home in Castine had a view, sure, but only from a vantage on the hill just barely any better than that of the houses below his.  Here, myriad stories higher than the tallest of the outer city skyscapers, the view was something else entirely.  “Geez,” he breathed out.

The sun hung two and a half hands above the horizon, so the afternoon, Bach surmised, must be relatively young yet.  Two… maybe three in the afternoon.  If that was the case, then he’d actually managed probably a good four additional hours of sleep — not that the cramped nap he’d stolen on the Mayor’s aeroyacht could really have been called sleeping.

“I guess that means I’m awake,” he told himself.  “Hungry, too.”  He left the balcony reluctantly, but left the doors wide open.  Padding his way across a floor of grass — something he still had to get used to — he made directly for the cooler in the small kitchen the apartment offered.  The thing was empty.  “Bah.”

He’d have no choice but to tune into the wireless.  Since this time on the day before, he’d been connected almost without pause.  He had been more than ready to cut himself off once free of any further tasks.  But, with an empty cooler, he’d have to place an order for quite a lot of groceries.

Imagining the ethereal lock and key that was his personal gateway to the wireless, Bach turned the latch in his mind, and let the layers of extra sensory information wash over him.  At the very least, in the privacy of his own quarters, there were relatively few figments vying for his attention.

A clock materialized on a desk in the corner even as a menu icon appeared next to the cooler.  If he cared to return to the balcony, Bach would likely have seen a number of adverts hovering over and otherwise adorning the many buildings of the outer city below.  That’s the sort of virtual embellishment Bach really could do without.

Swatting at the menu icon figment, Bach pulled open the full inventory index.  “Seems this city has just about everything.”  After pulling open and closing shut several sub-menus, he chuckled out an empty curse.  “I haven’t even heard of a lot of this junk.  Cows-Cows?”  Bach shook his head.  “What’s that?”

“Ah ha!”  The voice that erupted from beside him might have sent Bach falling to the floor, had he not caught himself.  It was Haley… or her figment, anyways.  She laughed at the spectacle even as she apologized, “Sorry.  I’ve been waiting for you to get back online.  Were you senseless all this whole while?”

Senseless… Bach hated that word.  What was so wrong with not spending the entirety of one’s day sand night connected to the wireless.  “I was sleeping.”

Haley held up both figment hands, palms forward.  “No, it’s ok.  It’s just that most people these days never disconnect.  For a while there I thought something might be wrong.”

“Nope,” he bit off the word even as he realized the virtual woman standing next to him was, herself, dressed with little concern for decency, like she’d just fallen out of bed.  Bach sent his eyes back to the figment menus he held.  “I’m going to need groceries.”

Perhaps she’d noticed his sudden discomfort, for the next words out of her mouth were that of a question.  “Is this better?”

Bach didn’t quite know what she meant until he glanced back toward her.  Where a moment before she wore a loose shirt far too large for her and what could only have been called gym shorts, now she wore the uniform of a druid — with every button fastened up the right side of her torso.  Even the mandarin collar that came up to just under her jawline appeared to be clasped tight.

She’d gone about as far from her previous state of dress as she could, false image though it might be.  Almost certainly she was just as disheveled in person as she’d been when she first appeared to him.

“Um,” was about all Bach could eke out before he thought better of himself.  “Actually, this is rather why I tune out as often and for as long as I can get away with.”

Haley’s arms crossed under her chest — something, Bach thought likely a bodily expression of defiance.  “Oh?”  She held the pose, but then smiled at him.  “Not a big fan of the constant and occasionally unsolicited barrage of virtual sensations?”

“Yeah,” Bach nodded.  “That about sums it up.”

“I see, I see.”  She nodded and then, probably satisfied in having gained his confidence, snapped a finger.  Her uniform disappeared, returning her to her previous disarray of attire.  She laughed out loud when Bach’s eyes popped wide before darting away.  “You’re a hoot,” she said.

Bach wanted to ask if she had no decency, but never actually would have.  If anything, he liked what he saw… but he wasn’t about to admit to it.  “Did you want something?”

“Aye,” she said.  “I didn’t want to waste any time, so I took the liberty of sending your cetacean husks to the approximate site of clathrate dissociation… above it, I mean.  We left the ape with the city, of course.”

“That’s fine,” he admitted.  “Are they there yet?”

“Actually,” she said with a finger raised in mock admonishment, “they’ve been there about fourty-five minutes.  We’ve been waiting for you.”

“Oh,” Bach breathed out.  “Sorry… you could have knocked.”  Though embarrassed for having held them up, he wasn’t about to apologize for not wanting to be permanently immersed in the collective human imagination.

“I did,” she said, though she grinned at the same time.  “It’s okay.  The city itself is still a good day from being as close as we can safely get to the site.  What we can do this afternoon is take a dive and see what there is to see.”

Bach nodded.  “How’s the nanite output?”

Haley paused, eyes out of focus for several moments before her attention returned.  “Good news,” she began.  “We pulled nine kilos for each of the last four hours.  Looks like we got about as good as could be hoped for.”

Bach only sighed, though.  “That’s so very little.”

“You are almost certainly right,” Haley relied to that.  “That’s why I contacted your father.”

“Oh?”  Bach should have thought of that.  Suddenly he felt tired all over again.  “I should have done that.”

Haley only grinned before deflecting his admission.  “He says he has one other recycler template in his possession, but that the rest seem to be missing.  He said they’ll be trackable but, for now, he’s too busy helping the town pick up the pieces.”

“Understandable.”

“Aye.  We’ve sent another hovercraft to go get that one, and expect to have it here by early evening.”

“Sounds good to me,” Bach admitted.  With every word, he felt more useless.  He could have done any of these things, had he thought to.  This Haley girl, he thought to himself, sure had her wits about her… and after having nearly been swept away from life itself during the first tsunami wave.  “Still, even doubling that amount means a good two weeks of production time, and just for one generation of recyclers.”

“All we can do is all we can do,” Haley countered, likely putting some amount of effort into coming off so upbeat.  She paused and just looked at him, still back to appearing haphazardly dressed.  Bach kept wanting to look at her — to divine why it was she just stared at him like that — and each time had to yank his eyes back to the the figment menus in retreat.  Finally she spoke again, “I have a stupid question.”

Bach could not help but look, and this time she was back in uniform.  Perhaps this meant she was being serious now.

“What?”

“I must be tired,” she said, mirroring his own thoughts not moments before.  “I should have checked into this earlier, but… do either ceti husks have built-in means to sample the water?  For methane, I mean?”

Bach grinned.  “Of course.  Water quality is a major issue, and most of our clientele who buy swimmers are looking to be able to test for it.”  At last, something positive he could contribute!

Relief flooded across the young druid’s face.  “Oh hell, I’m glad to hear that.  It only just occurred to me that I might have made a mistake sending them out just like that.”

Bach nodded.  “They can sniff the water.  It’s nothing too complicated.”

“Methane has no scent, though.”

Bach waved his hands as if to shoo away her misinterpretation.  “Doesn’t matter,” he said, trying to assuage the sudden consternation that gathered between Haley’s eyebrows, just under that figment emerald of hers.  “Basic sniffers will detect anything at or better than a few parts per million.  In some cases, oft times better.  It’s not so limited as the human nose.”

“Ah, okay.”  Haley then changed the subject, “Are you hungry, then?  You’ve been holding that menu ever since I found you.”

Bach nodded absently, oblivious to the implied humor.  “Pretty hungry,” he answered.

Haley shifted from leaning on her left side over to her right, and crossed her arms through each other again.  Only then, after having deciphered the momentary frustration in her body language, did he realize she’d just tried to poke fun at him.

“Order whatever you like,” she said.  “But have it sent to the Mayor’s office.  He’s invited us to run our proxy dive from there.  He wants to be privy to the mission that has his city diverted from its native haunts.”

“Okay,” Bach replied.  “When?”

“As soon as you’re cleaned up, I suppose.  I’ll not be too far behind.  I’m assuming you don’t know the way?”

“Nope.”

“Alright.  I’ll leave an avatar at your door.  She’ll guide you.”

Bach thanked her and, again, darted his eyes away as her clothing faded back into her actual choice of bedclothes.  The image only lasted as long as she did, quickly evaporating like a scattered mist.  Her uniform had been merely superimposed as a matter of willpower and, once she’d let go of her avatar, it had gone as well.

So I to clean up, then?  Bach took the hint, though he’d not realized he probably looked almost as unkempt as she had.  At least his shirt came all the way up to his neck… unlike hers.

Bach shook the image from his memory.  As unabashed as this lady came off, Bach thought it best to tune back out again, lest she pop in on him in the shower.  She might not mean to, Bach ventured to guess, but neither did he think she’d cover her eyes, apologize with any mote of sincerity, or leave him to come back when he was at least half-decent.  Best not to risk it.

Bach thumbed through the figment menus and, after far too much indecision, settled on turkey-growth steak, native greens and seaweed.  He told the menu about where this particular meal should be delivered, and then went on to poke and prod at various other dishes he thought he might like to cook up for himself at a later time.

The list of ingredients multiplied as he went, and after little effort, he’d gathered quite a lot by way of groceries.  He let the menu's intellect mix and match various aspects of these meals — substituting beans here for carrots there, and so forth, until he had a half decent lineup of meals ahead of him without anything going to waste for want of too much left unused.

The whole thing had been almost mindlessly easy, and Bach rather wished that the local grocers back in Castine had something as sophisticated as this… or made deliveries for that matter.  It was far too easy to overbuy when one surrounded themselves with food.

Bach closed the ethereal menu, expressing his being done with it, and the total rang up, complete with the cliché ding of some long-obsolete cash register.  Bach thought that a useless embellishment, but not so much as to be wholly annoyed by it.

For a brief moment, the bill read ‘$435’ before dropping back down to zero again.  “Oh,” he breathed out, and then again when the figure reversed itself.  “I guess they’re covering my tab.”

The bill came in a bit higher than he was accustomed to but, he had to admit.  They must be growing much of their own food out here, Bach thought, and that has to cost something more than it would when simply shipping it in from other places better suited to the task.

Chore well handled, Bach went about getting himself cleaned up — hopping in and out of the shower before dressing himself from what little he’d managed to pack before leaving Castine.  His suitcase had to have been delivered here from the hovercraft where he’d forgotten it, since there it stood when Haley had shown him in.

One quick look about the place told him of nothing particularly out of place or in need of doing, so Bach opened the hall door and left.  Only when he found himself unexpectedly alone in the hall did he remember to reconnect to the wireless.

Almost immediately, he noticed his promised companion — what looked, for all the world, like a stunted cartoon human being with a disproportionately large head attached to a tiny body with arms and legs that seemed to lack any joints or definition in the hands.  The creepy little thing didn’t stand more than a foot off the ground.

“Hello,” it said.  Its voice and long hair were about the only indications Bach had that it was meant to be female.

“Hi?”  Not quite sure what to make of this artificially intelligent figment looking up at his relatively towering form, his greeting came off more like a question.

“Are you Sir Kavanagh?”

Bach looked around, not entirely comfortable with the notion of being caught talking to this thing.  At least the curving hall was empty in both directions and all the grass and hanging plants seemed to absorb any potential echo.  “Yeah.”

The thing jumped up and down in apparent glee.  “Excellent,” it said.  “I am called Maple.  I was sent to escort you to Mayor Edgecombe’s office in the Axis Tower.”

“Axis Tower,” Bach asked, if only a moment before figuring it out for himself.  She means the spire at the center of the core.

“Axis Tower is that which stands at the very center of the city,” the figment being answered his too-quick question.

“I just figured that out,” he told the thing.  “So how do I get to his office, then?”

“Just follow me,” Maple replied, too full of energy by uncountable orders of magnitude.

“Can’t you just tell me?”  Bach did not relish the notion of being caught in the company of such a strange avatar.

The little thing shook her head as over-vigorously as one might expect from a cartoon character.  “No need, Sir Kavanagh.  I will happily guide you.”

He might have refused further, but the avatar leapt away from him and down the curving hall, taking each step like an astronaut bouncing across the low-gravity surface of the moon.  Bach had to push himself to catch up.  Eventually Maple did slow for him, though.

She led him clockwise along the curving hall, skipping several of the straight perpendicular halls that began off to their right.  If all these paths consisted either of curving circular halls or those straight-aways that intersected them, then Bach figured it would only make sense that not every straight-away would penetrate as deep as the elevator at the very center of the city.  Unless they merge somewhere first, he amended in thought.

Eventually, Maple did turn down a spoke-like hall — the fourth after having left his apartment door.  Wider than any previous, this one had grass along the walls, but a pair of moving conveyor walkways at its center.

The avatar moved toward the one headed inward, and waited for him to step on the moving belt.  It only makes sense, Bach admitted to himself.  The core alone could easily span two kilometers out from its axis, though that was a guess at best.  Some might choose to walk along the grassy edges of this pedestrian highway when nothing pressed for their time but, by using these conveyors, Bach would likely reach the center in relatively short order.

Somewhere about three quarters of the way along, Haley caught up to him.  A little winded, she’d likely been running along the conveyor, having seen him well ahead of her.  “Hi,” she panted.  “Hi, Bach.”

“Lady Diaz,” he greeted her, stopping so he could turn to face her.  Even standing still, he’d eventually reach the axis, and Haley looked happy to be taking a breather.

“Seriously,” she breathed out, “you can call me Haley.  Don’t mind Mitsuki’s eastern sensibilities.”  She stopped long enough to ease her panting.  “It’s been too long since I’ve been able to spend any real amount of time playing under a layer.”  She straightened her uniform — a real one this time, though she unbuttoned the top so that it didn’t cover her neck.

“Under?”  Bach knew people liked to venture out across the wireless — playing games that they could perceive with any or all of their senses — but he’d never really gotten into the practice himself, and any vernacular involved would only be all but lost on him.

She seemed to detect that, giving him a flat look.  “Don’t tell me you’ve never spent any time playing online?”

Bach shook his head.

“Wow,” she exhaled in genuine surprise.  “Well, when I say ‘under,’ that means playing using the real world as your setting, instead of casting all your senses out across a purely digital world.  The latter doesn’t really do much by way of maintaining one’s physical strength, though, so I tend to prefer the former.”

“Before I got this posting as Archdruid of Overjordan, my sister, friends, and I would dash through the woods at all hours, fighting off dragons and what not.  Suffice it to say… I was buff.”

“Was?”  He asked without thinking — wishing instantly he could have merely thought it.  Still, she smiled back at him.

“You complimented me!”  She grinned all the wider, knowing all too well that she was pushing at his introverted buttons.  “I’m charmed,” she added with a little bow.

“Yeah,” Bach grumbled out.  “You’re welcome.”

“Not far to go now,” she said, pointing past him.  “Let’s go?”

“Yeah,” Bach nodded as he turned to continue walking along the conveyor.  “Hey, that mutant avatar is gone.”

Haley pulled in close behind him as she walked.  “Maple?”

“Mm.”

“Maple’s no mutant.  She’s what Mitsu would call ‘chibi.’  Introduced me to the concept when we first became friends years ago.  It has a different spoken meaning in American, but generally refers to a cute and tiny version of any given character of a story.  Anyhow… you’re with me now, so her job was as good as done.”

“I guess,” Bach offered.  He supposed some might call it cute.  Still, something like that, even with its cartoony appearance… Bach just didn’t want to see such a thing walking around under people’s feet, much less vaulting over people’s heads as it seemed prone to do.

Another couple minutes saw Bach and Haley to the central elevator.  Bach assumed Haley must have summoned for it, as it had been ready for them as soon as they arrived.

“Mayor’s office,” Haley told the elevator as she followed in after Bach.  The doors snapped quietly shut, followed by a fleeting sense of motion in the pit of his stomach.  “Any idea how long it’ll take to get one of those ceti husks down about three hundred meters?”

“Oh,” he said, not expecting the question.  “Well… they have some ballast control built in, so they can make themselves drop like a rock when they want to.  Beyond that, they’re basically just polymer skin and alloy and ceramic bone.  So… at least above two thousand meters, there’s really little need to take it easy coming up or going down.  Three hundred might take half an hour or so.”

“That’s not so bad,” she said, leaving the conversation there.  Only about a minute passed before the doors slid open again, before Haley stepped out, motioning for Bach to follow after her.

From what Bach saw of the place, every wall in and around this place must be made of glass or some transparent ceramic or alloy — though, if either were the case, Bach boggled at the potential construction cost.  The outer walls that faced toward the afternoon sun were darkly tinted, but those that faced away were not.

As high as this floor of the tower stood, it took only a few adjoining offices to span the tower’s entire diameter and, in all directions — save where a office chose to tint its glassy walls — there was naught to see but three separate seas.  A sea of darkly translucent glass under which grew thickets and gardens; a sea of salty ocean water; and the sea of sky, pocked here and there with fledgling thunderheads losing their steam out here over frigid gulf waters.  The outer city remained entirely hidden beyond the core city’s man-made horizon.

“Geez,” Bach breathed out.

“Aye,” Haley answered him in his reaction to the scenery.  “That was my impression, too, my first time here.  Sir Mayor seems to like it.”

She said this as the very man himself walked out from one of the privacy-tinted side offices, wearing a courteous grin and extending a hand.  Bach took his hand and gave it a firm shake.  “Sir Mayor,” he greeted with a nod.

“I’m glad to see that you two are finally awake.  My crew at the site were starting to get drowsy, just sitting out there.”

“Ah, sorry.”  Bach usually was the sort who’d end up stuck waiting on everyone else.

“No, I’m just giving you a hard time,” he shot back with another grin.  “Any reason why we can’t conduct this operation from my office?”

Haley jumped in, “No reason.  Let us get to it.”

“Right,” returned the Mayor.  “Lady Diaz… Sir Kavanagh.  If you will?”  He curved an arm toward the door through which he’d just come.  Haley went first, and with the Mayor just standing there waiting, Bach moved to follow in after her.

Inside they found Khloe Kalitzakis, curled into a ball, arms wrapped around her knees at one edge of a tan leather couch that ran the length of the glassy wall.  She appeared to look right through them as they entered, and only after a fair stretch of time did her eyes focus on him.  “Hey Bach,” she said weakly.

Bach nodded her way.  “Lady Kalitzakis.”

The Mayor’s desk dominated the center of the room, and though he only occupied about one third of the spire’s outer glass curvature, couches ran along the inner walls as well, curved and straight alike.  There could easily be enough seating in here for a couple dozen attendees.

Bach guessed that might be out of necessity, perhaps.  Since the black-haired woman had already been seated, Haley moved in her direction, likely not wanting to have to split the Mayor’s attention in too many directions at once.  Bach followed after her cue.

“Luckily for us,” the Mayor started saying even as he effectively fell into his own chair, “we’ve recently cleared the horizon to where my hovercraft waits.  Therefore, we can forego the satellite proxy and just use line of sight connectivity.  It’s less than ideal, I understand, Sir Kavanagh,” he said, directing his attention toward Bach, “but it’s also better than the alternative.  Out here our connection to the wireless isn’t quite as broad as you’ve had it on the mainland.”

“That should be fine, so long as their ship relays for us.” Bach offered.  “Are we starting?”

Haley nodded even as the Mayor tossed his arms into the air, “Sure!”  Khloe appeared as if lost in a daze, barely acknowledging any of the goings on.

“Alright.”  Bach closed his eyes, spread out across his end of the couch bordering the tower’s outer glass wall, and summoned up a figment image of the Earth in his mind.  Using his living voice, he asked after the others, “Are you guys coming with me?”

Murmurs from the rest indicated that they intended to, and so he waited, leaving himself open on the wireless.  Almost instantly, Haley was there — rather, a ‘chibi’ version of herself, similar to that avatar, Maple.  She grinned, flashed him a backwards peace sign — whatever that meant — and burst into her natural image with a bit of a cartoony poof.  “Just kidding,” she offered through perfect white teeth.

Bach could not help but smile, though he wasn’t projecting an image of himself, per se.  Perhaps even because he wasn’t.  In any case, the others were not far behind… even Khloe.  Each of their figment self images varied slightly from their living forms, but not by much.

Haley jumped in.  “Let me bind the rest of you to his signature.  I’ll go last.”  With a deftness that spoke of extensive experience with this kind of wireless networking, the young Archdruid cast the mental impression of tethers not only between Bach and each of the others, but between themselves as well.  “That should do it.  All we can do now, Bach, is watch.”

“That’s fine,” he answered.  “I’m already looking for the cetacean husks.”  He’d started as soon as Haley had finished the ethereal bonds between himself and each of the others, so as not to waste too much time.

Grabbing onto the figment Earth, he felt the mountains and lakes beneath his virtual fingers.  He spun the planetary bauble just off its natural axis, letting it roll until the Atlantic presented itself.  Pushing against the Earth’s ethereal momentum, he forced it to stop, and then handily pulled the globe downward.

Ay Tee registered husks, give me a ping,” he asked with his inner voice.  It took a breath of time, but eventually twin signals did appear a good ways off the Union mainland.  “I see what he meant about the delay,” Bach said out loud, if half to himself.  Raw curiosity had him glance up toward the figment horizon where he saw several other iconic pings.  One even registered as occupied — probably by his dad, hard at work clearing debris in and around Castine.

Turning his attention back from the coast, Bach thought of himself as falling swiftly toward those two pings, what with their being almost indiscernible from one another at so great a virtual altitude.  After a time, he could tell the difference, and dove straight down into the larger of the two.  He then opened his eyes.

One crew member, a young woman wearing jeans and a sleeveless shirt, fell to the ship’s deck when Bach pushed up his husk’s great weight.

“Sorry,” he told her.  “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

The woman nodded, clawed her way up using a nearby rail, and rubbed at her backside, all the while waving his apology off as unnecessary.  Inwardly, toward the group of people ethereally tethered to his experiences, he asked a question.  “Any reason for me to wait?”

Several disembodied voices came back, none suggesting otherwise.  So, with that, Bach threw himself — rather, his husk — off the side of the hovercraft.  Given the several seconds of descent, Bach realized that the ship had not been settled in the water, but hovered probably a good twenty or more meters above the surface.

Once he hit the water, he used this to his advantage, piercing his way into the depths with all the momentum he had gathered.  Right away, Bach sucked in his stomach — or, at least, imagined himself doing so.  As a result, the ceti husk drew in the added weight of sea water into specialized pockets running the full length of its elongated torso.

Even as he sank, Bach also stretched out and undulated those wing-like arms, pushing his way down.  Darkness quickly became the rule, forcing him to adjust his vision… to incorporate a passive low tone sonic pulse.  This allowed him to see reflections of sound bouncing back from the occasional floating debris that he encountered on his way down.  Once, some kind of fish streamed into close view, though it looked awfully dead from the fleeting inspection he could give it.

“A casualty,” came Haley’s living voice, not five feet away from him.  Given their physical proximity to one another — hell, given the delay due to low bandwidth wireless this far from shore, Bach realized — talking out loud was probably for the best.

“I see it,” he answered with his own voice.  “Was it the methane?”  The splitting of one’s concentration between the use of two bodies always took some getting used to, even if only to speak.

“Almost certainly,” Haley answered back.  “You know,” she said after about another minute, “it’s almost certainly safe for you to violate the sonic restrictions down here.  Any actual cetacean that knows what its doing… they will have long since given this area a very wide berth.”

“Ah,” Bach uttered back.  “That’s fuzzy.”  He imagined himself giving off one big squeak, and let it spread away from him in all directions.  Within seconds, he saw the echo of something below him — something strangely round and on the move directly upwards and toward him.  “What is that?”

That’s when he heard Haley yell, “get your ship out of there, Edgecombe!”