From inside the restaurant, it looked like a cat had upchucked a hairball onto the window. It looked like that for just a few minutes before the maitre d’, high in his office over the gleaming marble cavern, noticed and ordered the window misted over at street level. Then all the diners could see was the view over San Rawlsia, as the sun set. That was, if any of them looked up from the thick haunches before them.
From the outside, Genny Goodman’s eyes misted over too, remembering the delicacies and wonders she’d seen through the window. The great AgaTron at the back, dispensing freshly slaughtered, perfectly cooked life to the legions of variously shaped scurrying robot waiters, who then rushed the plates of impossible edible structures up to half a click across the carved-out dining room, interweaving in a challengingly scary way that indicated a unified controlling conscious behind their movements, before coming to an impetus free graceful rest at the relevant table, and producing the food in a randomly-generated flourish that nevertheless deposited it fresh and glistening, in front of the long-insouciant diner. In the seconds before her view had been obscured, Genny had seen friends and schoolmates from long ago poking at the fabulous structures of bone, glycerine and flesh, including old flames and other pains from previous lives. It felt like they were poking at her and she turned away. Nancy was waiting, after all.
Wandering through the poor half of Rawlsia, hand-in-hand with Nancy (Who gently gibbered and drooled, a special case of useful genepool preservation all told), Genny trod the metalled roads and let her envy for those better off drain. It was just a matter of birth, she told herself, and not even lucky birth at that. Everyone was lucky in a different way, and that was the blessing of the system. It ironed out that luck and left all equal, all able to say that no-one was better than they. Except when they found themselves gribbling past the luxury quarter and couldn’t resist a quick peek.
She found herself aimed for St Carlous’ church, which had always provided a refuge for her and her kin, and wasn’t surprised at it. She’d been wandering the streets for weeks and the thought of a hard mattress and harder biscuits for dinner roused and motivated her a little. Even if it entailed hard, hard work. Genny looked up at the great aggregate building, grown out of the old church and the stumps of the lean-to tower blocks on either side into something tall and twisted, and felt her gorge rise. Hunger triumphed over vertigo, though, and she pressed on up the foot-eroded slope (could this have once been steps, she wondered) to the open stone arch of the nave.
She pressed on through the door, feeling the mandated tingle in her appendages as her ids were accessed and checked and emerged into the great open space of the church, clear between ancient cracked columns, restrained and supported by modern fibres. Weaver boxbots sat on the fibres and waited. A rumble of machinery in the distance and the bots, in sinister synchronisation, extended spiny appendages and tested the carbon, checking the fibres were holding. Then they’d fall still again, except for one or two who could be heard sculling the lines in the shadowed roof’s recesses, building more webs and pulling the building this way or that to compensate for some tiny change in the surrounding world.
A whispering voice that only she could hear chastised her. Genny knew it was projected from some old machine, but it creeped her out all the same. “Genny, dear. You’ve been awandering and not aworking for too long now. Turnaround nearly on us and whether we favour letting you through we don’t know. Just, we don’t know”
Like they could do that, thought Genny. They’ve no right and no way. Turnaround happens, we all go. Probably some prankster playing with the voluntary complexes in old Rawl’s switchabox. Wonder where they do beam these things from. She felt Nancy quiver in her grip, and turned to see her recoiling from the headless, limbless statues above the old theist altars. “Wonderful design, those, uh Nancy?” said Ginny “Who’d have thought that ancients come up with so strange somethings. Worshipping the decapped and the cripped, eh? That must have made for a mutilation-obsessed fun, eh?”
“Get on up Genny dear.” Said the headvoice. “Help Nancy too, there’s a dear.” A slow rumble of static building slowly in her back ear reminded Genny of what would happen if she didn’t. She turned to Nancy, but no help was needed there – the horrors of the headsound had conditioned Nancy so well, she was already vanishing around the first corner of the old tower’s stairs.
At the tower’s overcast top, a group of labourers was waiting for orders. Like Nancy and Genny, they looked like brown paper parcels wrapped up in string. Except the brown paper was mingled with rags and scraps of clothing and it was all bound together by fibres literally tied around and around the body, presumably scavenged from the ground or taken directly from the endless spinnerets that worked somewhere in the ruin, turning everything back into fibre.
A tall thin man, whose hair had made way for his skull years before, but whose eyes were bright behind shards of protective plastic, was standing transfixed staring at the remains of skyscraper propped against and tied to the church and the tower. As they approached the group he unfroze, and smiled brightly enough to outshine his eyes.
“I had word you were coming.” He said, “Welcome. I’m Boon, and I’ll be your slaverdriver, your taskmaster, your blessing of the whip today. Come, come, we’ve work to do.” He scurried towards the edge of the tower, stepped through a convenient window into the nearest toppled tower and vanished from view. The headvoice spoke “follow”, and Genny, Nancy and the rest heard and did. though some kind webber had made a net for the unwary or careless, stepping over the five-hundred foot drop was terrifying, especially onto a slope that wanted to push you back through the roughly shattered window. Further up the tilted floor, Boon could be seen squatting on his haunches, waiting. As the work team made their way through the window, his shining eyes tilted, heard and obeyed and he scurried further up the floor to the gentle sloping stairwell.
The staircase had circled a shaft and, though the shaft and the stairs had held due to the actions of the tiny automated builders, strengthening everything with their spidersilks until it was as rigid and resilient as steel resin, it was not traversable; whilst the south side of the stairs tilted in, so you could walk in the gulley formed by the wall and stairs, the north was simply impassable, a deadly slope that would drop you to the lower floors. The workers first task, therefore, was to break holes in the higher-up south walls and string spare fibres as handhelds, so that progress could be made up the stairs to the top of the tower and the real work could begin.
“No-one had any idea how high the tower had been before it was reduced to this sad stump.” said Boon, pressing an eating spinner against the relevant wall/ceiling, and marking out the area to be removed. “No-one had been alive when it was whole and no-one kept up with the indulgent histories of the dead peoples. Who cares about the dead? Any lessons they may teach us are already useless; they died, they lost, they were somehow wrong. What can we learn from them? What we do know is this scraper is still high, too high for our little robot friends by the headvoices’ accounts and useless as is. We’re to climb and fix it for them – they’ll bring us rations as we progress.”
Turnaround happens – everyone switches places, rawlsian what if in my place. Murder. How do you investigate something when every week you’re disempowered in a different way. And when the murder happened on the other side, to the other half. What work for the useless? Art? Pointless striving?
Tower of babel. Why did you build it? Because it wasn’t there. Searching for technologies but already have them all.