AUTHOR'S NOTE: Oh yes, I am still alive. Did you wonder? It has been more than a year since Chapter 109, and I never expected it to take this long. This past year has been crazy. Writing this chapter was more difficult than usual. This is the longest it has ever taken me to write a chapter, and there were stretches of time when I was writing a single sentence per week. I know exactly how this story will end, and I've known it since the very beginning, but building a path to that ending has always been the true adventure, and the characters have often surprised me and "made their own choices" along the way. If anyone is still reading this, thank you for your patience. Even though long stretches of time may pass between updates, I've said it before and I will say it again, this story is not over until you see THE END. We are getting close, but we are not there yet. Thank you for joining me on this adventure, and I love you all.
Chapter One Hundred Ten: Gwen Takes a Walk
Cornucopia One hummed with activity.
One hundred metal girder towers loomed within the vast interior of what had once been the Duskfall District Post Office's warehouse. Thousands of hydroponic bins filled each tower, stacked in neatly arranged rows and columns from the floor all the way to the warehouse ceiling. Concentric levels of catwalks ringed each hydroponics tower like scaffolding, strung together by narrow flights of metal stairs. One-third of the way up, and again two-thirds of the way, lone catwalks bridged each farm tower to its immediate neighbors, allowing volunteers to move from tower to tower without having to descend all the way to the floor.
Perched upon a catwalk towards the top of Tower Twelve, more than a hundred feet above the floor, Gwen Twymann took a moment to look around and soak in the incredible sight of Our Home's oldest Cornucopia facility. She admired the teams of Dersite volunteers hard at work inspecting the other towers' crops.
Cornucopia One had come a long way.
During these moments of awe, Gwen briefly forgot about why the Cornucopias were failing, and the forgetting was bliss.
As if attuned to Gwen's thoughts, the lights flickered, darkened for a moment, then stabilized. Most of the volunteers working in Cornucopia One, accustomed to the frequent blackouts, ignored the power fluctuation, but several of the newer volunteers eyed the ceiling lights nervously.
"Fucking hell," Gwen muttered under her breath.
"What?" asked the short, impeccably dressed assistant standing next to Gwen. "Were you talking to me?"
Gwen glanced at the short Dersite before returning to work. "Level Forty-Seven, Bin Sixteen." She frowned at a hydroponic bin of wilting carrot plants, unsealing the bin and gently lifting the lid. Peeking underneath, she saw nutrient solution dripping from the shriveled ends of thirty pitiful excuses for carrots. "Leggy," she growled, replacing the bin's lid. "I don't think these will grow much more. The whole bin is probably spoiled."
"I don't understand," said the assistant, entering Gwen's updates into his datapad. "What is wrong with them?"
Gwen looked at her assistant, raising an eyebrow at the Dersite's flamboyant attire: a burgundy suit with a matching bowtie and black undershirt. Who was this guy? Did he think Cornucopia One was hosting a Roaring Twenties costume party? "I don't recognize you. What's your name?"
"I call myself Pulse," replied the well-dressed Dersite.
"Is it your first day? You should know what it means when plants are leggy."
"My sixth day, actually. I am new to the volunteer programs."
"You saw what those carrots looked like." With two fingers, Gwen lifted the leaves of one of the drooping carrot plants. "Look at the discoloration. The lack of chlorophyll. See how pale the leaves are? How thin and stretched out they look? They can't even support their own weight. They're leggy as fuck."
"Are they not getting enough light?" Pulse looked up from his datapad, tapping the full-spectrum lamps shining onto the carrots. "The lamps seem fine. You think it's the blackouts?"
"I know it's the blackouts." Gwen stood up. "C'mon, let's finish up Forty-Seven and call it a day."
Gwen made her way around all four sides of Tower Twelve, inspecting every remaining hydroponic carrot bin on Level Forty-Seven. Much to her chagrin, at least half of them appeared to be in no better shape than the malnourished carrots in Bin Sixteen. Following closely behind, Pulse diligently recorded Gwen's observations into his datapad until all remaining units had been checked.
"Alright, that's enough for today," announced Gwen with a yawn. "Upload what you have. Let Analytics crunch those numbers." She stretched her arms and legs, realizing she had been crouching over hydroponic bins for most of the day without a rest. "So, what's the occasion?"
Pulse quickly double-checked his data before initiating the upload. "Occasion?"
"You look like you're dressed for a fancy party."
"No occasion," said Pulse. "This is how I chose to dress today. Tomorrow will likely be something different. Perhaps a floral pattern shirt?"
"Well, you do rock that suit," Gwen admitted. "But next time I see you up here, you better be wearing an apron over it."
"It's a start," said Pulse. "Our Home needs more color."
"One of my closest friends says the same thing," said Gwen. "I'm feeling spontaneous today. Want to meet her? You'll probably like her."
"Yes, why not?" Pulse finished the upload and switched off his datapad.
"Have you ever been to the Orchard?"
Pulse stared blankly. "The what?"
"I know it's only your sixth day, but you really need to start learning the lingo. Walk with me." Gwen made her way along the catwalk to the nearest flight of metal stairs and started descending. "The Orchard is what we call Cornucopia Seven because it's where most of our fruit is grown. My friend works there."
Pulse followed Gwen from landing to landing, walking carefully down the narrow steps towards the floor nearly a hundred feet below. In a measured voice, he asked, "Do you mean the Sylph?"
"Nope. Different friend."
"Oh." Pulse did his best not to sound crestfallen. "No one I know has seen the Sylph in years. Is she okay?"
"Hey, Avila!" Gwen hollered over to one of the neighboring towers, where an experienced Cultivation volunteer was busy inspecting a bin of half-grown beets. "How's Tower Eleven looking?"
"Leggy and miserable!" Avila hollered back. "More than half of what I've seen so far is unusable. Is Tower Twelve doing any better?"
"Nope." Gwen turned a corner, continuing to descend the stairs. "I'm heading down to the Orchard. Will you assign someone to finish Tower Twelve?"
"I can handle it after my break," replied Avila, scowling at the malnourished beets. "See you next week."
Pulse followed Gwen all the way to the bottom of the stairs, waiting patiently as she conferred with several of the other team leaders. From what he overheard and understood, none of the other towers in Cornucopia One were yielding a particularly fruitful harvest. After a few minutes, Gwen's meetings concluded, and she motioned for Pulse to walk with her towards the exit.
With a mechanical hiss, the exit unsealed, revealing a second set of doors which would open only when the inner doors had closed. Gwen and Pulse waited patiently. It was a small price to pay for the ability to control a Cornucopia facility's internal humidity and temperature.
When the outer doors finally opened, Gwen emerged first, exchanging waves with the scarred postal worker sitting behind the front desk. "Have a good day, Luo. See you next week?"
"I'll be taking some personal time next week," replied Luo from behind the desk. "Mail's been slow, and I haven't visited Memorial Park in more than a decade. Perhaps it is time to go back."
Gwen waved goodbye to Luo and passed through the front entrance, stepping outside for the first time in more than eighteen hours. She stood there for a moment on the sidewalk of West Meridian Street, blinking in the sunlight while her eyes adjusted.
It was not truly sunlight, but Gwen still caught herself using that word to describe the rich, golden light of the Great Beacon, which blazed low in the southern horizon, hugging the city's skyline. She looked up, squinting to protect her eyes. Although not as radiant as the sun from Gwen's old life, the Beacon was nevertheless too bright to perceive with the naked eye. During the decades Cass spent lost in the dark, Gwen had thrown herself with single-minded focus into the work of designing and building the Beacon. The idea was simple: build a light so bright that even someone lost in the Furthest Ring could see it. And yet, she never thought the Beacon would actually bring Cass back. She had only been trying to preserve her own sanity by keeping herself busy.
Cass finding her way back home, after spotting the distant light of the Beacon, had been a happy accident.
"Bob Ross would be proud," Gwen murmured to herself, deep in thought.
"Who?" Pulse looked at Gwen while crossing the cobblestone street to the far sidewalk. "Is that your friend?"
Gwen's laughter made Pulse blink unexpectedly. "No, Bob Ross is dead." After a moment, Gwen's laughter died. "They're all dead."
"I don't understand."
"Bob Ross used to be a drill instructor. Then, one day, he decided to stop yelling at people. He spent the rest of his beautiful life speaking softly, painting on TV, and encouraging people. He made mistakes all the time while painting, but he called them happy accidents and worked them into his design. By the time he finished a painting, you would never have known a mistake had ever been made." Gwen frowned at the tears forming in her eyes, quickly wiping them away before Pulse could see. She glanced over her shoulder and spotted an approaching trolley. "Not all Humans were shitty."
As the trolley came to a stop at the corner, allowing several passengers to disembark, Gwen and Pulse climbed aboard and grabbed two available seats. After a few moments, the trolley began to move again, sliding smoothly along twin rails embedded in the road. While Gwen watched countless gray, black, and violet buildings slide across her window, the other passengers largely failed at pretending not to stare at her. Even after all these years, the populace of Our Home never ceased to be fascinated by Humans.
"I notice you avoided my question about the Sylph," remarked Pulse, ignoring the other passengers' questioning stares. "Can you at least tell me if she is still alive?"
"Death never seems to stop her for very long." Gwen caught sight of a Dersite musician on the sidewalk, playing a violin to the passersby. As the trolley passed the musician, she could see that none of the pedestrians were listening. "We started the volunteer programs almost a century ago. And you tell me this is only your sixth day. What have you been doing all this time?"
Pulse met Gwen's gaze, dissatisfied by her evasion but unwilling to press the issue further. "I Kept the Faith for seventy years."
"You're one of those?"
"No longer," replied Pulse. "The prayers grew repetitive."
Gwen snorted. "After seventy years, anything would grow repetitive."
"If you say so." Pulse shrugged. "Seventy years is not a very long time for me."
"It is for a Human." Gwen smiled as the trolley passed a trio of Dersites strolling along the sidewalk, arm-in-arm. "I hear a lot about what goes on at Worship. Did you seriously believe my friends and I are deities?"
"Not everyone thinks you are gods," said Pulse. "The Immovables probably do, but most do not care. The scripture says we will be guided to Paradise when The Eight reunite. It doesn't say you are divine. At least, it didn't originally."
The trolley came to a brief stop on a new street corner, allowing more of the passengers to disembark while others stepped aboard. Several of the departing passengers wore simple gray clothes emblazoned with a distinct symbol: eight points of silver sewn in a circle around a ninth point of gold. Each of the gray-clad passengers made sure to glare at Pulse as they walked by, stepping off the trolley and disappearing into the throng of pedestrians.
"Scripture?" As the trolley continued forward, Gwen kept her face expressionless while reading Pulse's reaction to the strangers' glares. "People call Atrex's pamphlets scripture?"
"He is a charismatic individual." Pulse fingered his collar, glancing anxiously out his window towards where the gray-clad Dersites had vanished. "And he is no longer the only one behind those writings. We are trapped in endless darkness. Atrex tells us that it will not last forever. You can understand the appeal? There are over a hundred thousand who Keep the Faith, and in time there will be millions."
"Maybe." Gwen took a deep breath. "I get it. Humans had religions, too. Where I came from, billions of people feared impermanence and oblivion. Vanishing with death, rotting away into nature, and being forgotten. We even had an entire industry which revolved around replacing corpses' blood with fluid which slowed decomposition because people thought that if their bodies decayed more slowly, they would not be forgotten as quickly. But religions tell you, without evidence, that you're special, chosen, part of some master plan for how existence unfolds, and that everything is happening for a reason. Of course it's alluring."
"Nothing happens for a reason?" asked Pulse. "Do you really think that?"
Gwen shrugged. "Patterns arise naturally out of chaos."
"Chaos is simply what patterns look like when they go unrecognized," countered Pulse. "Why are Humans so concerned by death? It is an odd thing to obsess over."
"For you, maybe. You'll live forever unless you get killed," said Gwen. "Obviously I'm an exception, but most Humans never lived longer than a century."
"Only a century?!" Pulse's eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. "A century. That's all? How did your people have a chance to understand or enjoy anything? How could you ever get to know another person in such a short time?"
"I don't need centuries to enjoy a good chocolate chip cookie." Gwen smiled. "I don't need millennia to make a friend or fall in love. It can happen in an instant."
"Well, I suppose. But then, I wonder, if you are used to living at such a fast pace, how will you contend with the long stretches of time which lay ahead? You may not have needed millennia before, but you have millennia now." Pulse gazed out the window, watching the city pass slowly by, looking up at the empty black sky. "Are we going to drift aimlessly through the Furthest Ring for all eternity? Is there nothing more to our lives than that?"
Frustration surged through Gwen. "Figure it out for yourself," she said, more sharply than intended. She did not like those questions, and had spent decades learning to ignore them for the sake of staying sane. "You chose to be here. I didn't."
Pulse frowned, turning to look at Gwen. "When the Sylph journeyed into the dark and brought you back to us, did she force you to return with her? Could you not have chosen to remain where she found you?"
"And spend forever trapped in my own memories? What kind of choice is that?" After a moment of silence, Gwen reconsidered Pulse's point. "Not much of a choice, but still a choice, I guess. Fine. But I have no idea how to get us out of the void. Do you think I have answers? I know how to keep the plants alive and the lights on."
Suddenly, the lights went out, and the trolley, no longer powered, ground to a halt.
"God damn it." Gwen scowled at the nearest dormant streetlight. "Is the power grid eavesdropping on me today?"
Outside the trolley, the streetlights and all the buildings had also gone dark. By now, Gwen and Pulse had traveled far enough away from the Great Beacon that they could no longer directly see it in the sky, but this part of town was still illuminated with a soft twilight glow. Pedestrians continued walking along the cobble street, circumventing the halted trolleys, and other Dersites emerged from their darkened homes to take advantage of the weak daylight outside.
The driver expertly and professionally stated the obvious by announcing the outage to his passengers. "You know the drill," said the driver, throwing a lever to manually open the trolley's front doors. "If you don't want to wait, please make your way to the front to disembark. Otherwise, remain in your seats, and I'm sure we'll be moving again shortly."
A few passengers stood up and exited the trolley, but most remained in their seats.
"Why do these outages keep happening?" asked Pulse. "I always assumed the infrastructure was simply old and not maintained well."
"Every time someone suggests switching off the Beacon, Atrex's half of Conclave threatens violence." Gwen tapped an impatient rhythm on her armrest with the tips of her fingers, waiting for the power to return. "Leaving the Beacon on consumes too much power. If we don't start switching it off, the blackouts will continue, our plants won't get the light they need, and when the Cornucopias finally fail, everyone will eat their shoes before the end. Or each other."
With a quiet hum, the trolley's power returned, and the city lights flickered back to life. The driver closed his doors, the trolley slid forward along its tracks once more, and life resumed.
Pulse and Gwen spent the remainder of their ride in silence.
Gliding further down West Meridian Street, the trolley entered the perpetual dusk of Our Home's northern hemisphere, where the Great Beacon's light could not quite reach. After about twenty minutes, as the city grew dimmer and darker, the trolley reached Oneiro Avenue, which marked part of the boundary between the districts of Duskfall and Long Night. From there, Gwen waited an additional five stops before rising from her seat.
The trolley slid to a halt at the intersection of West Meridian and Somnium, allowing Gwen and Pulse to disembark.
Gwen watched the trolley fade from view before setting off at a brisk pace down Somnium Street, and Pulse hurried to catch up. Together they walked through what had once been a thriving neighborhood, reduced now to a shadow of its former self. Cobwebs clouded the windows of unlit houses, long abandoned by previous tenants who had no desire to live in perpetual nighttime near the site of a gruesome battle.
As Gwen looked up at the midnight sky, hoping to glimpse Paradise, she was not disappointed.
A tiny point of white light twinkled alone within the boundless vastness of the Furthest Ring. A lonely star. As if all stars in the night sky had been extinguished, save one.
Of course, there had never been any stars within the Furthest Ring to begin with. This was not the sky Gwen knew. She remembered clear nights from her old life, gazing up at a glittering cosmos filled with constellations and nebulae, and taking it completely for granted.
Paradise was not Gwen's name for the lonely star, but the name had grown very popular over the years. Only here, near Memorial Park, away from the Great Beacon's powerful daylight, where most of the city and street lights no longer functioned; only here could Paradise be glimpsed with clarity, and even then, only when it happened to be visible. On Earth, Gwen could have trusted any celestial object to rise in the east, travel across the sky, and set in the west on a daily basis. Paradise did not follow these rules. It often traveled across the sky in squiggly, erratic trajectories which would have driven an astronomer mad. Sometimes it rose from one direction, turned around, and set in the same direction. Other times, Paradise seemed to freeze in place, remaining fixed at a certain point in the sky for a while before becoming 'unstuck' and moving again.
Unreliable as it was, Paradise always brightened Gwen's day whenever she was fortunate enough to glimpse it.
Gwen looked down from the sky. She could already see the southern end of Memorial Park approaching, a few blocks ahead, where the ruins of long-destroyed buildings served as a reminder of scars left behind by the Red Miles. "Have you ever visited the Bloody Road?" she asked.
"I fought there," replied Pulse, eyeing the ruins ahead with trepidation. "I should have died there."
"Oh?" Gwen had heard plenty about the Wrathful Veteran leading a desperate, legendary charge down the Bloody Road against the Black Queen's commandos, but she never encountered veterans who were eager to go into detail. Most who survived the Red Miles tried to forget, and none succeeded. "Are you okay?"
Pulse tugged absentmindedly at his lapels as hundreds of little white lights came into view. "The battle is over."
"We can take an alternate route," offered Gwen. "Memorial Park is the quickest way to the Orchard, but not the only way."
Pulse shook his head. "I am quite capable of walking down a road."
Memorial Park was seven blocks long, and it stretched across five parallel streets. Somnium Street in the middle was notable for being the street down which the Wrathful Veteran led the final charge, but the dissenters had also advanced down the neighboring two streets on either side. Not a single building in the immediate area had been left standing by the Red Miles. Although the loose debris had been cleared away years ago, skeletons of the ruined buildings remained in place, and little white lights glowed from within.
Hundreds more white lights shined from the apexes of small polished stone obelisks which dotted the road ahead like luminous freckles. Each obelisk, less than half a foot tall, bore the name or identification number of a dissenter who had died in that spot. Century-old craters still pockmarked the streets; tangible reminders of the withering artillery barrage unleashed by the Dersite Royal Navy. The soft memorial lights did all the work of illuminating the old battlefield because none of the obliterated streetlights in this area had ever been rebuilt.
A rectangular metal plaque, embedded within a particularly large artillery crater, marked the southern boundary of Memorial Park. Gwen read the engraving on the plaque: HERE LIE THOSE WHO DIED FOR A TYRANT. Underneath, a smaller line of text cheekily added: MANY BY THE TYRANT'S OWN HAND. Pulse stared at the cold epitaph for a few moments before forcing his gaze away. Unlike every other grave marker in Memorial Park, no lights adorned the mass grave where the corpses of dead commandos and royal soldiers had been buried.
Memorial Park was nearly as silent as the graves it contained. Scarcely half a dozen people could be seen visiting the burial sites up ahead. Gwen tried to imagine the river of blood which Argo had described, flowing between stained cobblestones. After walking another block, Gwen spotted a large silver disc set into the road ahead. Eight memorial lights glowed at equidistant points around the plaque's circumference, and upon closer inspection, she could read the inscription in the center: FOR THE LOST AND UNFORGOTTEN FALLEN. Dozens of names and identification numbers' surrounded the central inscription, etched into the metal, honoring dissenters whose bodies had never been recovered from the carnage of the Bloody Road.
If Pulse recognized any of those names, he gave no outward indication.
"Doing okay?" asked Gwen.
"Fine." Pulse blinked, taken aback by the sharpness of his response. In a softer tone, he added, "Really, I am fine. Let's keep moving."
"If you say so." Gwen continued walking, turning her attention to the next approaching monument.
As Gwen and Pulse proceeded towards where the dissenters had fought, the number of illuminated graves increased dramatically. An elevated octagonal platform of polished gray stone, large enough for a dozen people to stand upon, rested at the approximate center of Memorial Park, marking the exact spot where the Black Queen had fallen.
Not too far ahead, a lone Dersite knelt in front of a memorial light, wordlessly touching three fingers to the name on the grave.
Giving the mourner a wide berth, Gwen and Pulse walked down the remainder of the Bloody Road, all the way to the edge of the Crater, slowing their pace as the field of glass came into view.
There came a point where the ruins of Memorial Park simply stopped, giving way to an open expanse of glass, nearly half a mile across, shored up from underneath by a system of metal support beams – another of Gwen's earlier projects. Before the Battle of the Bloody Road, sixteen square city blocks of streets, buildings, two public parks, and thousands of people had occupied the area obliterated by the explosion which ripped the Crater into being.
Staring through glass at the yawning maw of the Crater underneath, Gwen found herself thinking again of Gino. Veterans of the Bloody Road had told Gwen about Gino losing his mind and sparking the battle by breaching the Onyx. The resulting collapse buried half of the Onyx, forcing the surviving dissenters to climb through the Crater, scrambling up precarious slopes of rubble and shattered rock in a desperate bid to reach the surface before the Black Queen's commandos arrived.
Gwen wished the veterans could tell her what happened to Gino after the battle, but no one knew. He had disappeared.
A simple cobblestone path brought Gwen and Pulse to Cornucopia Seven's original entrance: a small stone building, no larger than a garage, situated at the edge of the Crater. The building's sizable entrance doors were already wide open, allowing Gwen and Pulse to enter and begin descending through a concrete stairwell which seemed to spiral endlessly down into the Crater's furthest depths. Dusty lightbulbs, hanging from the slanted ceiling at regular intervals, illuminated the musty interior of the corkscrew-shaped stairwell. Twin pairs of metal rails hugged both sides of the stairs, embedded into the floor, marking the old tram routes. Early in the construction of Cornucopia Seven, the immense quantities of rock and debris which had collapsed into the Onyx needed to be cleared away, and the old trams had utilized these tracks to carry all that rock up to the surface. Years later, after the Orchard's first successful harvest, those very same trams brought fruit to the surface for distribution to the public marketplaces.
Nowadays, the trams collected dust in storage, and the Orchard's fruit was brought to the surface via the newly completed Grand Elevator, along with a system of wide escalators. All the same, Gwen preferred to use the old stairs every time she visited. The stairs had a distinct sort of basement smell which reminded Gwen of home.
Several minutes later, they arrived at the bottom of the stairs, where heavy metal doors blocked the way forward. Gwen pressed a green button on the wall. After several seconds passed, she pressed it again. When nothing happened, she balled her right hand into a fist and pounded heavily on the door.
With a mechanical hiss, the door split down the middle and opened, revealing an identical metal door about fifteen feet further inside. Through a large rectangular window built into one of the walls, Gwen could see the intake control room, where she recognized a portly Cultivation volunteer reclining in a padded chair. "Syphus!" she knocked loudly on the window. "The doorbell's still broken!"
"Um." Syphus jolted upright as if electricity surged through his chair. "We put in a requisition to the Engineers, but…" Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he pushed a button on his console, and the outer doors began to close. "Why don't you just use the escalators like everyone else? Take the Grand Elevator, even. No one comes in through the Crater anymore."
The outer doors finished closing, plunging the airlock-like entrance chamber into temporary darkness, illuminated only by the weak glow of Syphus's control console on the other side of the observation window. After a few moments, the inner doors began to open.
"I prefer the stairs," grunted Gwen, waiting impatiently for the inner doors. "Just get the doorbell working, will you? It's only a frayed wire. Easy fix."
"Yes." Syphus cleared his throat. "Perhaps a more strongly worded requisition to the Engineers—"
"Fine, I'll bring in my soldering iron next week and do it myself." Gwen walked through the inner doors without waiting for a thank you from Syphus, who was already settling back into his chair and would likely return to sleep within the next ten minutes.
"I've always wondered—" Pulse started to say.
"Keep it up and you'll become a philosopher," interrupted Gwen, leading the way towards the bright light at the end of the gradually widening service corridor.
Caught off-guard, Pulse cleared his throat and went on. "The Queen mined the Muse of Life's planet for omnicrystal, metals, minerals, and other resources, but we left all that behind. How were you able to procure the building materials for the Great Beacon? Where did you obtain the original seeds for your first generation of crops? And for that matter, how does the postal service keep getting new paper?"
"I'm the Witch of Light. I have my ways. Do you expect me to show you everything on your sixth day at work?"
"Hardly," replied Pulse. "Perhaps you will show me on my seventh day?"
"Ask me again in a millennium."
Gwen and Pulse emerged from the dim service tunnel and stepped into a vibrant new world.
Dozens of people, mostly Cultivation volunteers on break or on vacation, filled the small cobblestone street ahead. Most who spotted Gwen merely continued to go about their business, knowing she preferred not to be singled out, but a few of the newer volunteers still offered enthusiastic waves or a few friendly words of greeting, which she returned without too much fuss.
Pulse looked further ahead, past the shingled rooftops, and saw trees. Millions of leaves, shining bright golden-green in the brilliant daylight.
Disoriented, feeling like he was back on the surface, outdoors, Pulse looked upwards, and the illusion was broken. A grid of massive full-spectrum lights blazed like miniature suns from the rough black rock ceiling high above, illuminating the interior of a subterranean cavern vast enough to hold an entire village and more besides.
"You just forgot you were thousands of feet underground," remarked Gwen. "For a moment, you forgot."
Gwen smiled, breathing in Cornucopia Seven's humid air. "Welcome to the Orchard."
Pulse breathed in slowly, noticing something different about the air. "Why does the air feel so…" He exhaled quickly and inhaled again, unbuttoning his suit jacket. "It feels… Thicker?"
"Humidity," said Gwen. "Moisture in the air. It's early spring, right now. Come back in three months for midsummer, and that suit of yours will turn into a fancy sweat rag. Come back in nine months for the winter cycle, and you'll need another jacket. Cool, right?"
Pulse looked up again at the light grid, squinting to see the shadowy, unlit part of the cavern ceiling in the near distance, where another thick layer of reinforced glass sealed the bottom opening of the Crater. Darkness lay beyond the glass, marking the rough tunnel where the Prince of Mind had bored through layers of bedrock and undercity all the way up to the moon's surface.
"What has you so amused?" asked Gwen, noticing Pulse's faint smile.
"I still catch myself thinking of Our Home as Derse's moon." Pulse looked away from the Crater. "If a moon leaves its planet behind, is it still a moon?"
Gwen shrugged, exchanging smiles with a passing volunteer. "I guess we're more of a rogue planetoid now."
Drifting through the void between universes.
Shaking her head, Gwen did her best to stop thinking about spending eternity in an empty void.
Gwen would never forget the original Illumination Day, when Paradise first appeared in the sky. When she saw hordes of nightmarish silhouettes thrown suddenly into sharp relief against the shockwaves of intense light heralding Paradise's birth. A grotesque snapshot of tentacled, clawed, many-mouthed, million-eyed primordials, looming silently in the darkness, looking as though they habitually consumed entire planets for brunch.
Shivering, Gwen hoped she never had to encounter one of those creatures up close.
"A rogue planetoid," echoed Pulse, looking both ways as he and Gwen crossed the next intersection. To the right, he saw more houses, with many of the residents relaxing on their front porches and stoops; to the left, the street continued only one block before ending abruptly in front of a row of trees bearing some sort of round orange fruit. Additional rows of the same trees could be seen further back, stretching away into the near distance. "What's growing over there?"
"Oranges." Gwen didn't even need to look. She already knew where everything was. "Have you never tried one?"
"Fair enough. We haven't been sending oranges to market for very long. But just you wait. They're awesome. I'd like to seed a line of blood oranges, too. Eventually. And tangerines."
Pulse frowned in confusion. "Why put blood into them?"
Gwen blinked. "Blood oranges don't have blood in them. They're just reddish."
Pulse's frown only deepened. "If blood oranges are red, why call them oranges? Why not call them blood reds?"
"They're still orange on the outside," said Gwen. "Besides, Blood Reds sounds more like a death metal band. Or a cartel. Or the lacrosse team of a vampire school."
"Vampires?" Pulse had no idea what lacrosse, death metal bands, or cartels were either, but he did not believe Gwen had the patience to explain all of these unfamiliar terms at once. Better to pick the most interesting term for now and ask about the others later. "What are-"
"Mythological creatures who drink blood."
"I don't understand," said Pulse. "Do vampires attend the vampire school? Or is it a school that teaches people how to be vampires?"
"You're overthinking it. Look, if you really want to get into vampires, there are movies I can show you." Noting the blank look on Pulse's face, she added, "Holy fuck, don't tell me you don't know what movies are. Seriously? You had TVs back on Derse! An entire broadcasting system! What did you watch?"
"Propaganda, mostly," replied Pulse. "Announcements from the Queen's government. Names and pictures of fugitives wanted by the Queen's Agents. Televised executions. News about the war effort against Prospit. We watched what the Queen wanted us to watch. Would any of those things qualify as a movie?"
"Fuck." In order to stay sane, Gwen had kept herself perpetually busy. Too busy, perhaps. "Okay." Was tunnel vision to blame? "You're coming to Greenflame Plaza tomorrow, and you'll experience what a movie is. It's settled. Come in the early evening."
Even if Pulse had wanted to argue, he received no opportunity. Gwen forged ahead through the light crowds of pedestrians, heading straight for the old stone house at the center of town. "This is administration, I take it?" asked Pulse, studying the simple, unimpressive house. It did not look like anything special, but being in the center of town was surely no accident. "Cute little place."
"The Wrathful Veteran used to live here." Gwen walked straight towards the open front door. "I lived here, too, for a while. With some friends." She had shared a bedroom upstairs with Gino, but that was the last thing she wanted to talk about. "HQ was downstairs, and the rest of the house was mostly sleeping quarters for the Veteran and his staff."
"This place has history," remarked Pulse, running a hand across the black stone doorframe as he stepped inside, following Gwen down the front hallway to the open doorway at the far end, through which a spacious control room could be seen. "First a rebellion grows here, and now the literal fruits of that rebellion."
"How poetic," interjected a gruff voice which made Gwen smile. Argo emerged from the control center to greet the newcomers, and the first thing Pulse noticed was her left leg, which was made of metal. "Are you here to make us a pamphlet?"
Pulse blinked in surprise, staring at the prosthetic leg. "I-"
"Are you talking to my beautiful legs?" Argo gave Pulse a withering look. "Or are you talking to me?"
"Go easy on him, Argo," said Gwen. "He's new."
"Well, newbie? How new are you? So new you've never seen a prosthetic before?" asked Argo. "What's your name?"
"Pulse. This is my sixth day-"
"Queen's ashes!" exclaimed an incredulous Argo. "Six days? That's all? What have you been doing for the past century? Twiddling your thumbs and staring into the void?"
"I Kept the Faith."
"That ridiculous cult," scoffed Argo. "I suppose you got down on your knees, gave some of your blood, and worshipped Gwen as a deity?"
"Only the Immovables perform blood sancts," protested Pulse, struggling to make his point amid Argo's coarse laughter. "Most adherents just use water."
"Gwen. A deity. Snap your fingers and smite me," wheezed Argo, laughing herself into a coughing fit. "Let me tell you, Pulse, believe me, Gwen is not a deity. When she drinks, she gets drunk. I've cleaned up her vomit and carried her to bed too many times for her to be divine."
"This goddess has returned the favor more times than you can count," interjected Gwen.
"You think I can't count to seventeen?" chortled Argo. "Holy Gwen, Sacrosanct Returner of Favors, enjoy some blood and water once a year. And prayers. Lots of prayers. Who needs snacks when you can have endless prayers?"
"Well, it seemed a bit less ridiculous at the time," admitted Pulse. "The Faith did not work for me. Too much standing around waiting for something better. I need beauty. And work that yields tangible results. Perhaps I could work here?"
Argo snorted. "You thought you could just stroll in here and volunteer without spending time in one of the other six Cornucopias?"
Pulse held Argo's gaze without saying anything.
"Are you patient enough to nurture a life from seed to harvest?" asked Argo. "I'm unconvinced."
"I can't wait around for Paradise," replied Pulse. "But I can wait for a flower. Or a fruit tree. That's tangible."
Argo grunted, still a bit skeptical, but this time without any biting retort. She turned around and stepped back into the control room, allowing Gwen and Pulse to follow.
Mathemeticians sat at small computer desks in the center of the spacious control room, analyzing data from the ongoing harvest in Cornucopia One while also comparing the data to that of previous harvests. Meanwhile, technicians occupied the remaining computer stations, monitoring the Orchard's power grid and weather conditions. Argo took her place at the center of the control room. "Soak it in, Pulse. The Orchard is alive, and this is its nerve center. Go take a look at the monitors." Artificial knee and ankle joints in her prosthetic leg enabled Argo to walk without the aid of crutches, but she still moved with a rolling gait and occasionally made use of a cane. "What are you playing at, Gwen?" she asked in a quieter voice, glancing at Pulse, who had wandered across the room to inspect one of the weather stations. "Bringing me someone so green?"
Gwen's expression did not change. "Green is a good color for the Orchard."
Argo rolled her eyes. "He is too inexperienced to volunteer here," she insisted. "I need people who don't have to be taught the basics. I don't have time for someone who spends all day asking questions."
"No." Argo shook her head. "Don't smile like that, like you think I'll change my mind over a cocktail."
"I think you'd enjoy teaching more than you let on," surmised Gwen.
"And I think you should stop eating into my prep time and tell me what you want," retorted Argo. "We're programming a storm in less than fifteen minutes. I need everyone focused."
Gwen suppressed her laughter as Pulse made his way back to the center of the control room. Did Argo realize how easy she was to rile? "Where can we find Iris?"
"She's inspecting the outer parcels," replied Argo. "The new lot of mango saplings, I think. Go bother her instead of me."
"It was nice meeting you, Argo," said Pulse.
Gwen tugged Pulse by the arm, ushering him out of the nerve center, through the front hall, and back outside before Argo grew any sharper.
Pulse glanced back into the house for a moment before following Gwen down a different street. "She hates me."
"She likes you. Argo is prickly with everyone. Well, everyone except Iris." Gwen let go of Pulse's arm and led the way down a different street, passing a sprawling public garden along the way. "If she hated you, she wouldn't have let you into her nerve center. That place is her sanctuary."
"Who is Iris?"
"One of the first friends I ever made here. She's the one who started these flower gardens. I think she was some sort of royal botanist before the Black Queen died." Gwen gestured to the sunflowers, lilies, hydrangeas, tulips, and daffodils thriving within the public garden, enjoying the view for a few more seconds before continuing down the street towards the edge of town. "Most of the flowers need to be manually pollinated every year, and Iris used to do it all by herself before Argo forced her to delegate."
Gwen and Pulse proceeded across the rest of town, passing through the wooded outskirts area to the orchards beyond. They emerged from the woods into a broad field of grass, clovers, and gnarly, twisted apple trees. Pulse crouched down for a moment to run his hands across the grass and clovers, feeling the earth underneath. He stood back up and removed his shoes, tying them both to his belt. Then he walked barefoot across the field, marveling at the large green apples nestled within their trees.
A fleck of water landed on Pulse's right cheek, followed by another on the back of his left hand.
Ears popping, Pulse looked up and saw mist accumulating near the cavern ceiling. The mist thickened and began to fall gracefully towards the ground, refracting and obscuring the sunny sky lamps. Meanwhile, tiny drops of water plummeted directly through the mist onto the town and orchards below. "Incredible."
"Sprinklers embedded in the cavern ceiling. Pretty cool, huh?" Gwen frowned at the mild discoloration in some of the apple trees' leaves. "Argo plans the weather on a weekly basis, and she loves doing storms. In a couple minutes, she'll spin up the fans and give us a proper breeze. It's too bad we can't make real clouds and rain, but this is definitely the next best thing."
A thin stretch of pine trees and tall ferns separated the apple orchard from the next parcel over, and Gwen slowed her walk to enjoy the fragrance of the pines, which reminded her of home. She and Pulse emerged into the neighboring orchard, where the rows of trees bore red apples instead of green. A volunteer wearing glasses and a blue poncho, busy sampling the soil near the base of a nearby apple trees, noticed the newcomers and offered a wave. "Hello there, Gwen!"
Gwen returned the wave. "How's the soil, Issi?"
"Soil's fine," Issi replied, frowning at the apple tree's canopy. "Crop seems fine, too, for now, but there's more yellow in the leaves. Light deficiency."
"Those fucking blackouts," muttered Gwen. "Well, keep up the good work."
The flecks of rain strengthened into a steady patter, dampening the earth and moistening the trees. A mechanical hum whirred from somewhere deep within Cornucopia Seven's cavern walls, followed by a gentle breeze which agitated the leaves.
Leaving Issi behind, Gwen and Pulse crossed through three fields of mature orange trees, another two parcels filled with pear trees, and a plum orchard, before finally arriving at the mangoes. There were no trees yet in the mango parcel – only saplings held upright by wooden stakes – so it did not take long for Gwen to spot Iris sitting cross-legged on the grass and clovers, hunched over a mango sapling.
Wearing a soft blue cardigan, no poncho despite the precipitation, and a simple black belt laden with a variety of gardening tools, Iris murmured softly to the mango sapling she scrutinized, touching its yellowed leaves. Hearing Gwen's approach, she looked up and grinned. "Fancy seeing you here." She stood and walked over to Gwen, embracing her. "I expected you later in the week."
"I'm feeling spontaneous today." Gwen returned the hug. "Good thing, too. I love Argo's storms."
"So does she," mused Iris. "The Orchard is faring better than the other Cornucopias, but these saplings are already going yellow. They won't grow properly if we can't ensure a stable and consistent light source."
"Don't I know it," muttered Gwen. "I just came from Cornucopia One, and it's looking like we'll lose about half of this year's harvest to the blackouts."
"Why bother with the fans, if lack of power is such an issue?" asked Pulse. "Seems like your fans eat up a lot of power to create this wind."
"Trees die without wind," replied Iris, noticing Pulse for the first time. "Wind teaches a tree to sink its roots deep into the ground. The first trees we tried to grow here collapsed under their own weight because there was no wind. Have you a name?"
Pulse blinked and cleared his throat. "Pulse. You can call me Pulse."
"He wants to volunteer in the Orchard," said Gwen. "You're the one to talk to about that."
"Yes," added Pulse, "and may I say your gardens are beautiful?"
"Odd." Iris cocked her head slightly. "Asking my permission to say something that you just said anyway?"
Without missing a beat, Pulse tried again. "Rephrase: your gardens are beautiful."
"Yes, you've mentioned." Iris smiled. "Our Home needs more color. I've been saying it for years."
"I've been saying it for years," said Pulse. "Why don't you plant gardens up in the city?"
"Last time I tried, my roses were murdered by Atrex's carnival of fools," replied Iris. "He calls my gardens frivolous, wasteful, and his followers have adopted the empty-headed notion that my flowers steal energy which should instead be powering the Great Beacon. Can you believe that? Now, every time I go topside to try and start a proper garden, I'll come back to it and find everything destroyed."
"Only the Immovables would do something like that," said Pulse. "They are fanatics. Most adherents would probably love your gardens."
"Well, where were they? Why can't the sane religious nuts ever reign in the insane ones?" Iris narrowed her eyes. "You know an awful lot about the Faith. Don't tell me you're part of that madness."
Iris frowned. "Everyone seems to be joining the Faith these days, but I rarely hear about someone leaving it."
"My deacon barred me from Worship until I stopped dressing, in his words, like a flamboyant, feathered disgrace." While speaking, Pulse straightened his bowtie. "Deacon Seffrey must prepare for an eternal wait if he expects me to return."
"I suppose it is your deacon's loss," said Iris.
"Your friend Argo doesn't seem to think so," remarked Pulse. "She tore into me when she learned of my past associations. I've felt less abrasion from sandpaper."
Iris laughed. "If you ever expect Argo to shower you with compliments, you'll be the one preparing for an eternal wait."
Gwen watched Iris and Pulse, amused. "He'd fit in nicely here, Iris, don't you think?"
Iris studied Pulse for a few moments. "Come with me," she said, walking abruptly towards town, over to the nearest stretch of pine trees, pushing aside a low-hanging bough to reveal clusters of crocus scattered across the ground, violet and gold crocuses mixed with whites and blues, sprouting up through the carpet of clovers and ferns. Removing the trowel from her toolbelt, Iris knelt and dug into the earth around a cluster of five purple crocuses, carefully extracting the flowers with their home soil, bulbs, and root systems still intact. "Here." She placed the crocus-bearing chunk of earth into Pulse's hands. "Hold my friends with care. If you drop them, you may return in a hundred years to apologize."
Pulse grimaced as some of the soil broke away and sprinkled all over his suit jacket and pants.
"Follow me." Iris led Gwen and Pulse through the pine trees, emerging into a well-organized plum orchard. Pulse loped awkwardly across the plum orchard, attempting to walk slowly enough to avoid jostling his crocus transplant, yet swiftly enough to keep up with the brisk pace of his companions. He brought the five crocuses up to his eyes, peering into the flowers and studying their orange stamens and pistils. He sniffed the little violet flowers, but did not notice any distinct fragrance.
Iris continued towards town, walking all the way to the pine trees on the other side of the plum orchard. Stepping into the narrow stretch of woods, she gestured at the ground, which was covered with fallen pine cones, pine needles, grass, and clovers, but no flowers. "I'd like to introduce crocuses to more of the woods, but as you can see, it is slow going." She took her trowel and pierced the earth once again, quickly digging out a small hole.
Pulse leaned down and gingerly placed the crocuses and their dirt into the space provided by Iris. After smoothing down the edges and a few minor adjustments with the surrounding clovers, the five transplanted crocuses looked as if they had lived there the entire time.
"My friends are now your friends." Iris examined the five crocuses closely, prodding them gently. "Keep them happy. Give them full lives. Do this, and I will consider offering you a more permanent place here. These crocuses are siblings, and I will not accept a broken family. If a single blossom withers on your watch, you will continue volunteering elsewhere, and maybe we will try this again in a century, assuming the Faith hasn't gotten everyone killed by then. Does that sound fair?"
"I've never taken care of a flower before," said Pulse. "What does a crocus need?"
"Water may prove helpful," suggested Iris. "I do not have time to be your teacher, but I do expect you to learn. There are plenty of experienced people who volunteer here. Ask around for advice. Visit our library. We have books about every life form we cultivate. Humans had books for just about everything, it seems."
Bright white light flashed overhead, above the cloudy veil of mist, followed by a growl of thunder which made Pulse jump, and the swaying trees creaked as the wind intensified.
"Did you think we could create an actual thunderstorm?" chuckled Iris. "What will it be, Pulse? Will you care for my crocuses? If you'd rather come here the usual way after at least a decade or two of volunteering elsewhere, that is also an option."
"Alright, I'll be a crocus parent." Pulse looked around for recognizable landmarks, fixing the location into his mind. "I'll try."
Iris smiled. "Good. Argo will see to your orientation. I'll let her know you are on your way."
"On my way?" Pulse swallowed audibly. "To Argo? Now?"
"Oh yes." Iris began to walk again, leading the way through the trees into the pear orchard on the other side. Taking out her datapad, she composed a quick message to Argo. "She loves teaching new people."
Gwen grinned wryly. She almost pitied Pulse for what lay ahead.
"Don't expect to be idle," warned Iris, sending her message to Argo and pocketing the datapad. "You will be assigned a parcel for inspection every day. You will help with tilling soil, collecting seeds, pruning, taking pH samples, sweeping the town streets, doing kitchen shifts in the dining hall, cleaning the public privies, and whatever else Argo tells you to do. And yes, on top of all that, I expect you to make time for your crocuses."
Pulse swallowed again. "I…"
"Argo will be waiting for you at Administration after her storm is done. Do you remember the way?" Iris pointed towards the far end of the pear orchard. "Keep going that way, past the pears and the oranges, and you'll reach town."
"You aren't coming?" Pulse was clearly not trying very hard to mask his disappointment.
"I'd get going if I were you," replied Iris. "This won't be a long storm, and if Argo needs to wait for you, she might get a bit cross."
Barely taking the time to thank Iris for the opportunity, Pulse scurried into the rain and made a beeline towards town. Gwen and Iris watched him hurry across the pear orchard until he disappeared into the pines.
"Where did you find that one?" asked Iris, walking slowly out from the cover of the pine trees into the rain. "He is peculiar. I like him."
"Random chance. We started talking and really hit it off," replied Gwen, walking side by side with Iris. "I haven't had a nice conversation like that with someone new in a long while. Enthusiasm is in short supply these days, and I want him exposed to the Orchard before he can grow jaded again. Even if he fails your crocus test and has to wait another century. Don't you think that's a bit harsh? Make him wait before trying again, sure, but a century?"
"If he really puts his heart into it, I'll probably let him stay even if he loses a blossom or two." Iris's smile returned. "No need for him to know that."
Gwen and Iris meandered back towards town, taking their time as they passed through parcels of pear and orange trees. The sky lamps overhead, obscured by the fog, flickered twice but continued to shine.
"Have you had any luck with the Conclave?" asked Iris, glancing upward at the sky lamps. "The blackouts are becoming more frequent."
Gwen snorted. "The day Atrex and Elunes stop feuding is the day the Conclave will be able to do something useful. I've had it up to here with them. I'll never understand how Cass was able to keep them from killing each other."
"And how is Cass doing?" prodded Iris, speaking quietly even though no one was around to hear. "We rarely talk about her, and she has largely stopped answering my letters. Is she still unwell?"
Gwen searched for the right words. "She's improved a bit. Don't take it personally. The letters, I mean. She's trying, but…well. You know."
"I can only imagine what it must have been like to be lost in the void for so long." Iris frowned at the mildly yellowed leaves of a passing orange tree.
"Worse than a nightmare," Gwen murmured. "She'll be fine. Give her time."
"If it were up to me, I would give her as much time as she wants," said Iris. "The power grid will not be so accommodating."
Gwen did not reply, walking in silence with Iris into the dense woods separating Orchard Town from its surrounding parcels.
Taking the lead, Iris headed off the foot path, pushing through a green wall of white-and-gold honeysuckle, interspersed with bushes of brilliant yellow forsythia, into a small clearing where the trees gave way to a rainbow display of flowers. Clumps of red and orange tulips and yellow daffodils towered proudly above the ferns and clovers, dancing in the wind with buttercups and dandelions, blue lupins and violets, purple hyssop and lilacs, and a number of flowers Gwen did not know by name.
In the center of the clearing, nestled within groups of young sunflowers and prickly green bushes from which roses would soon bloom, was Iris and Argo's home: a cute little two-story brick cottage with vines growing up the walls, small glass windows, and a front porch with three wooden rocking chairs underneath a glass awning. A flower pot rested on the sill just inside one of the cottage's first-floor windows, bearing a dormant orange chrysanthemum which would not bloom until summer.
The flowers and ferns bent gracefully in the same direction as a stern breeze penetrated the woods and passed through the clearing. Gwen's clothes were soaked by now, and the breeze made her shiver, but she did not mind. "Cherry blossoms," she remarked, reminiscing on Spring from her old life. "You need to experience cherry blossoms."
Iris walked under the glass awning and opened her cottage's front door. "We already have a parcel of cherry trees."
"Fruit-bearing cherry trees, sure, but I'm talking about cherry blossoms. There are types of cherry tree which emphasize flowers over fruit. In spring, only for about a week or two, they bloom white and light pink," explained Gwen, following Iris inside and closing the door behind her. "Then all the petals fall and the ground turns into a soft pink carpet. Imagine walking barefoot across a cloud of silk."
"That's a lot of effort for only a week of flowers." Iris filled a kettle with water and set it on her stove, turning on the electric burner underneath. "They must be very beautiful."
"We can start small." Gwen walked through the kitchen, past the spiral staircase leading upstairs, and into the parlor, taking a seat in one of the soft armchairs. "I'll procure a seed stock and you can plant a few around town, maybe even line a street with them on both sides. I guarantee you, once word gets around, people will want to visit the Orchard to see the cherry blossoms and walk on their petals."
"Is that wise?" Iris set down a pair of empty teacups onto the countertop next to the stove, placing a bag of herbal tea into each cup. "Turn the Orchard into a tourist attraction, and the Faith will find a way to ruin it."
"How can the Orchard survive if no one cares about it?" countered Gwen. "People won't care about something they never see. This place could be a paradise if we can keep it going."
"If." Iris walked into the parlor and picked up the watering can sitting next to her fireplace. She crossed to the windowsill next to Gwen's chair, where the dormant chrysanthemum slept in its flowerpot. "We can keep the Beacon on all the time, or we can keep the Orchard, but we can't keep both. People will have to choose." Tilting the watering can, Iris irrigated the chrysanthemum, watching water subside slowly into the soil. "If they don't choose the Orchard, they will have to kill me to shut this place down."
The kettle, having reached its boiling point, began to whistle.
Iris returned to the kitchen, removed the screeching kettle from the heat, and poured boiling water into both teacups, taking care to avoid getting scalded by the steam. Setting down the kettle, she turned off the stove and brought both teacups over to the parlor, offering one to Gwen.
"Thank you." Gwen rose to take her cup and returned to the front door, opening it. "Want to enjoy these on the porch?" She stepped outside and took a seat in one of the wooden rocking chairs, enjoying the sound of rain pattering on the glass awning which kept the front porch dry. Iris took the rocking chair next to Gwen, and they both sat in silence, listening to the rain, waiting for their tea to steep.
After a few minutes, Gwen blew across the surface of her tea and removed the teabag, taking a tiny sip.
Artificial lightning flashed again from above the mist, followed by thunder rumbling from the Orchard's sound system. The pines and oaks swayed one way, then another, as the wind strengthened and changed direction. Fat raindrops pelted the ground in earnest, and many of the flowers began to close, petals retracting, taking a nap until the weather calmed.
Gwen took a deep breath, savoring the smell of rain. "I don't care much for storms at sea, but this?" She took another sip of tea. "This is a perfect mood."
"Yes," agreed Iris, taking a deep drink, unbothered by the hotness of her tea. "Strange to think that I have lived most of my life without rain."
"Where I came from, people were expected to be busy all the time." Gwen trailed a finger around the rim of her teacup, blowing across the tea's surface. "When it was sunny outside, I usually felt an urge to be social or take a walk, but rain always made it easier to relax and enjoy a day of doing nothing."
"I doubt I could ever enjoy an entire day of doing nothing." Iris again drank deeply from her tea. "There is always something here which needs attention."
"Well, about that. I'm doing a movie night tomorrow in Greenflame Plaza." Gwen breathed in her nose, savoring the scent of petrichor, then she blew once more across the surface of her hot tea. "Or a TV marathon night. I don't know. I'm dusting off my projector and throwing something fun on, and you should totally come."
"I would love to, but I-"
"But what? But nothing," interrupted Gwen. "You've had years to enjoy never taking a break. You're coming, and that's that."
"Well." Iris emptied her teacup with an intentionally loud slurp. "I can see arguing with you will waste my breath."
"Good." Gwen yawned loudly before finishing her tea. "It's settled."
The artificial storm continued to intensify. Iris's porch faced away from the wind, which helped keep most of the rain from getting underneath the glass awning, but not all of it. Taking off her shoes and socks, Gwen stretched out her feet and toes, allowing them to get wet. "How long did it take you to pollinate all these flowers?" she asked, watching as more of the flowers in Iris's yard drooped and closed their petals.
"In my yard? About a week or so," replied Iris. "I do a little before bed each day. Why?"
"I've been thinking of introducing pollinators who could do the job for you," said Gwen. "It would be an undertaking, though, because if we introduce pollinators, we need to build an ecosystem around them."
"Animals? Creatures?" Iris looked doubtful. "They will eat my flowers."
"Some of them, yes." Gwen grinned at the thought. "But new flowers will grow automatically because the pollination will already be taken care of. And your roses will be fine. They have thorns, remember?"
"I don't know." Iris shook her head. "Introducing animals would be difficult to fix if it got out of control, and we could lose control easily."
"How can we ever bring these gardens to the surface if almost every flower needs to be pollinated by hand year after year?" asked Gwen. "It's too inefficient. Without pollinators, the rest of Our Home will never bloom."
Iris remained silent for a while, following Gwen's example and removing her shoes, allowing the rain to fall directly on her feet. Tapping a finger against the rim of her empty teacup, hard carapace clinking loudly on the porcelain, she finally said, "I'll give you a sealed room to test your idea. We will talk about unleashing chaos in the Orchard only when you show me your idea can work."
Gwen smiled. "Deal." With that, she rose from her chair, yawning again and stretching her arms. "It's sleepy time for me. See you tomorrow?"
Iris stood up, giving Gwen a quick hug. "Yes, I will be there."
"Good." As Gwen opened Iris's front door, stepped inside, and placed her teacup in the sink, she said, "I invited Pulse, too, so don't let Argo stop him from coming. Otherwise, she is free to do her worst with him."
"I'll pass along the message," said Iris, following Gwen inside and putting her own teacup in the sink for washing later. "She will be thrilled."
"Sarcasm, Iris? You continue to surprise." Gwen headed upstairs into the guest bedroom, retrieving a transportalizer pad from her sylladex, deploying it on the floor. As she stepped onto the pad, she called out, "Nighty-night!"
Iris's cottage vanished in a sudden flash of light.
Feeling as though she were being sucked down a vortex, Gwen held her breath and closed her eyes, waiting for the experience to pass.
In an instant, it was all over.
Gwen opened her eyes to the sight of legendary Eartha Kitt staring at her from a poster on the bedroom wall. The Beatles' iconic Abbey Road poster adorned the wall to one side of Eartha Kitt, and on the other side was another poster showing Ella Fitzgerald with Marilyn Monroe. Underneath the three posters, Gwen's lacrosse sticks leaned against the wall, collecting dust. A closed laptop sat on the unmade bed, nestled within the folds of a heavy blanket from which Gwen had hastily emerged early in the morning. Twelve plastic stars decorated the bedroom ceiling, and thick blackout curtains adorned the windows, which were currently open.
Crouching, Gwen popped open the small control panel built into her bedroom's transportalizer pad. After initiating a retrieval subroutine, she closed the control panel, stepped back, and looked away. Within five seconds, there was another bright flash of light as the transportalizer in her bedroom retrieved the other transportalizer she'd left on the floor of Iris's cottage. Gwen collapsed the second transportalizer, stowing it in her sylladex before exiting the bedroom.
The small, cozy apartment had originally belonged to Argo, years ago, but after Argo moved out to live in the Orchard full-time with Iris, Gwen had taken over the space and decorated it. She wandered through the den and into the kitchen, taking a moment to look through the windows and enjoy her second-story view of the quiet plaza outside. Greenflame Plaza attracted vendors and a handful of fledgling musicians during the day, but the activity always calmed down after nightfall. What passed for nightfall, at least. The light of the Great Beacon never wavered, and within the bright southern hemisphere of Our Home, nighttime existed in concept only.
Gwen had never quite gotten used to the experience of living in perpetual daytime in a city where the sky was always dark. Part of why she enjoyed visiting the Orchard so frequently was to remember what it had been like to live in a world with a proper day-night cycle. A world which honored her body's circadian rhythms. She glared at the brilliant light of the Great Beacon in the near distance, and yawned, turning away from the window. "I'll deal with you later."
Opening her apartment door, Gwen walked into the building's stairwell and trudged upstairs to her old apartment on the third floor. With two knuckles, she knocked lightly on the door and was surprised when it swung inwards, revealing the messy space within. "Oh."
Clothes, blankets, pillows, and books lay strewn about the floor. Dirty dishes filled the kitchen sink. Blackout drapes obscured every window, blotting out the rest of existence.
Cass Galavis, wearing baggy gray sweatpants and a black tank top, sat cross-legged in the middle of the mess, facing away from the door, surrounded by three chessboards – one in front and one on either side. Each chessboard bore a different configuration of opposing armies, and while all of those armies had drawn blood, none appeared to be making much progress against each other. A half-finished bottle of wine waited next to one of the chessboards.
An electric razor lay on the floor next to Cass, along with all her hair.
"Are you okay?" Gwen stepped into the apartment, processing Cass's newfound baldness, and asked, "Why is all your hair on the floor?"
"It was in my way." On the chessboard to her left, Cass moved a black bishop, then she looked at the chessboard on her right. She moved that board's white queen into a position which directly threatened the opposing black king. "Check," she murmured, refocusing her attention to the chessboard in front of her. "I'm busy."
"Well, I'm glad your eyebrows survived," remarked Gwen. "Your door wasn't all the way closed. Did you try stepping outside?"
"Glanced down the stairs." Cass chose a white pawn and advanced it two squares ahead, threatening a black knight while simultaneously blocking a black bishop from placing the white king in check on the next turn. "It was enough for now."
"I'm throwing together a watch party tomorrow night," said Gwen. "You should come."
"Where?" Cass returned to the game on her left, advancing a white knight to counter the black bishop she'd moved before, daring the bishop to attack. If the black bishop attacked, however, it would merely fall in the next turn to a white pawn which supported the knight. She turned to the game on her right, picking up the black king. "Outside?"
Gwen nodded. "Yes, here in the plaza. Outside."
Cass hesitated with the black king.
"I think you can do it. Iris will be there. Argo, too. And some other friends I've made over the years. I'm hoping word spreads and more people get interested." Gwen frowned at the three chessboards, trying to understand Cass's strategy. "You could even bring a chair downstairs, leave the front door open, and watch from there if you need the feeling of a roof over your head."
Cass placed the black king, moving it out of check. "What will you be watching?"
"Not sure yet." Gwen shrugged. "I might just throw on Avatar: The Last Airbender and see what happens."
Cass took an uncharacteristically long time to ponder her next move.
"Think about it," invited Gwen, taking her cue and stepping back into the stairwell. "Need anything?"
Gwen closed the door, heading back downstairs to her own apartment.
Kicking off her shoes, Gwen walked into her bathroom and started the shower. She peeled off her drenched work clothes, dumping them in a hamper for laundry later. She walked over to the sink, grabbed a toothbrush and some toothpaste from behind the bathroom mirror, and brushed her teeth. When it came time to step into the shower, she did not move. Instead, she gazed into the weary indigo eyes staring back at her from the bathroom mirror. She breathed in deeply, exhaling gently.
Gwen did not feel 108 years old.
The mirror still showed someone with the body of an eighteen-year-old, but that did not feel accurate either.
"We should be wrinkly as fuck," Gwen and her mirror reflection murmured to each other. She caressed one of her cheeks. "Dead, actually. We should be dead." Allowing her hand to fall, Gwen added, "We were dead." She laughed quietly. "Are we still dead?"
Gwen turned away from the mirror and stepped into the shower. For an unknown stretch of time, she simply stood still, forehead resting against the shower wall, focused on absolutely nothing beyond the hot water cascading down her body and into the drain. After finishing her shower, she toweled off and slipped into her pajamas, which were black and decorated with white stars, gold suns, and silver moons. Feeling clean and fresh, she retired to her bedroom and closed her blackout curtains, plunging the room into darkness. She crawled into bed, burying herself in the blankets, and it was not long before the quiet snoring began.
The twelve plastic stars decorating Gwen's bedroom ceiling began to glow in the dark.