“This is not one of ours,” said the guild master. “It is clearly very intricate, but also strangely plain for a device that must have been fiendishly expensive to make. It has no jewels, no gold inlay. Also, I have no idea how it is supposed to work. This is not something we can repair.”
He stood in the central courtyard of the compound of the Guild of Automaton Makers. The yard was paved with intricately patterned ceramic tiles and surrounded by tall mud-brick walls, over which drifted the clamor of the nearby market. A cool breeze blew from the River Itil, moderating the savage summer heat of the great city of Sarai in the land of the Golden Horde.
Space Zebra has stripes like an electric rainbow. His spiky mane spits in the left eye of Madam Gravity. His teeth were stolen from the living, breathing mouth of a titanium shark. His wild eyes could hypnotize a maypole on a blustery spring day. His filthy hooves have blighted an antique carpet with smears of ochre mud. The insurance company will not be happy.
Zebe grazes on a large, juicy steak. The former owner of the plate is trussed up like courier’s piece-work under the circular table. Winner takes all, in life and dinner.
A brass band was playing on top of a float. Royce couldn’t see either the band or the float. The crowd was pressed in tightly, with many wearing tall, feathered headdresses that swayed as they danced. As loud as the band must have been playing, the noise from the party almost drowned the music out.
This was Night Side in Ephis, Carnival, the Festival of Taverns, the wildest annual party in the Spiral Arm.
Royce carefully adjusted the cheap plastic cat mask that kept slipping down his nose. He slapped at a hand that had repeatedly tried to insert itself into his jacket pocket, and sighed. Every year he promised himself that this time would be the last. Somehow, he always found himself back once more. This year was the tenth Carnival that he had attended, the third since the rogue AI had rebuilt his entire body from the cells up, with so many unexpected results.
Bob Knight sat at a round table, in a café in the Esplanade, the vast mall that ran through the commercial center of Clarkesville. Sunlight filtered down through the great arch of filigreed windows that sealed off the collapsed lava tube.
On the table before him sat a mug, filled with a dark liquid.
“It’s chicory,” said Bob.
“Next shipment of beans is coming in a week’s time,” said Jace, the proprietor of the cafe. She shrugged. “It’s space, dude. Arabica doesn’t grow on Mars.”
Bob pushed the mug away from himself, with an expression of disgust, and put his head down on the table.
“You’re going to be the most important person in Orbital City in about two day’s time,” said the colonel. “Not much engineering repair work for you to do now though, until we sort out those remaining pockets of resistance.”
Atul went in search of a drink.
Although the skirmishing was over on the other side of the vast wheel-shaped structure, every so often there was a thump that made the infrastructure shake. Some genius had disconnected the air pressure alarms, probably due to the incessant noise, so he clutched his emergency air tank, and flinched with each new vibration of the floor.
Dan bought the magic eight-ball from a place in Alphabet City. It was a hole in the wall, tucked between a sandwich and salmonella dive, and a rusty steel shutter layered with graffiti tags. When he went back later he could never figure out where it had been.
“Cute toy,” Dan said. He stretched out his hand to touch the plush animal on the counter, and then stopped abruptly when it blinked its enormous eyes, and twitched a fuzzy ear.
“Family pet,” said the kid behind the counter. “Not for sale.” He paused and then said, “Too much trouble anyhow, just ask my grandfather.” The kid jerked his head backwards, indicating the low doorway behind the counter.
“I’m not looking for a pet,” said Dan. “Actually, I was hoping you had one of those things to help you make up your mind.”
“Magic eight-ball,” said the kid. “Only one left, twenty bucks.”
The space habitat of New Ragusa had an ancient tradition where every hundred days the citizens would hold an election as to what the season should be.
The effect was easily accomplished by modifying the internal temperature and operating hours of the central sun-line, and by altering the humidity. In this way, almost any climate, from frigid polar winter to sweltering tropical summer could be rapidly achieved. Many types of vegetation, carefully stored in suspended animation in different stages of their annual cycle, could be planted overnight by drones to complete the seemingly magical change.
An evening breeze slipped gently through the open door of the Great Tur in Berestye, redolent with the smell of peat and flowering oak trees.
The heavy sheepskin that had covered the doorway during the recent winter was now folded neatly in a corner.
A small fire in the center of the room provided most of the light, although there were also wax candles spaced every few feet along the two long trestle tables.
Dir bent down to speak quietly to his father, the proprietor of the tavern. “Bac’ka,” he said, respectfully. There must have been something urgent in his tone, because Old Askold looked up. “The man in the corner,” Dir said.
The corner in question was far from the fire, and poorly lit. Somebody sat hunched over a wooden mug. Neither of them could make out his face from the other side of the room.
“What of him?”
“His skin is blue,” said Dir. “If I give him more harelka, I worry that he may become ill. If he dies in here, Gleb and I will need to drag him to the river, and the town watch will undoubtedly ask us many questions.”