To tell the truth, I thought the city was just another weird rock formation from the short distance at which I became aware of it, looming out of pink sunrise-tinted fog. At that point, I couldn't really conceive of a city or anything like it. As far as I was concerned, the big jutting outcroppings had crawled up a hill and become square; but no, the Surgeon informed me that the formations clustered together were buildings, and the crooked spires rising from them were towers-- cathedral towers, bell towers, something like that. It was an old city, and it was our destination. My first question was to ask if the doctor could find us there.
"No. This city is not on speaking terms with the doctor."
"The city can speak?"
"In a sense. You don't need to worry about it. The network is unlikely to be able to communicate directly with you."
"It's a human city, right? I mean, we built it and live there."
"You built it, yes. But nothing that lives there is human now. It's all mimicry. Don't be fooled, and stay by my side." She patted me awkwardly on the shoulder. Her metal hand was heavy and hot from the atmosphere so it didn’t feel as reassuring as she probably meant it to be, but the truth was that I appreciated the gesture anyway. Other than the whole escaping from the homicidal doctor’s experimental facility incident overall, it was the most personal gesture of care I’d ever seen from her.
I shouldered the backpack, which felt like it was going to rub my back raw - although it was a lot lighter than it started because of all the water I’d imbibed on the trip already, which was a bit worrying all on its own. What I wanted more than anything was something cool to press to my sweaty forehead!
But I doubted that much like that could be found in the city anyway. Or at least I couldn’t imagine it.
Even as we walked closer the city looked as dusty, worn-down and acid-washed dry as the rest of the wasteland. The buildings were rigid, stone, and laid out crookedly and tall up the hills almost like the crusty carcass of some kind of giant animal, and the crowded towers were the pock-marked bones poking out of the leathery flesh. I must have said that under my breath out loud when it crossed my mind, because the Surgeon tilted her head to consider me with an angle to her lips which I could only describe as amused.
“I didn’t know you were a poet,” she said dryly. I flushed. Whether or not she was making fun of me I was suddenly overcome with deep embarrassment.
“Well it looks a bit like that, doesn’t it?” I said defensively.
“It’s not a bad description. I thought it looked like the spires of a mandlebrot bulb, myself.”
“What’s that?” The word “bulb” only brought to mind flowers or maybe a light bulb. “Some kind of plant?”
“An infinitely repeating mathematical structure, extruded into 3-dimensional space.” That definitely sounded like something a computer would say. Anyway, it only took us a bit longer to get down into the city itself. It didn't seem like there were walls around it or any other kind of thing that would suggest it had been attacked or bombed, it was just very worn down at the outskirts, piled up with debris and stone, and as we walked further in it was like buildings took shape out of the formless ruins and climbed back up into the sky. I thought if I knew more, I could say when the city had been built-- or something like that-- it bothered me that I didn't have enough knowledge to describe it other than "towering" and "elaborate" and "old".
It also seemed to be totally empty of life, which made me nervous. Cities were supposed to have people in it, right? What was this terrible thing that had left only the Surgeon and the Doctor alive? I wasn't about to count myself among the living, either, at least not yet.
We passed a lot of buildings that were just empty shells, no doors or windows, strewn with dust, until finally there started to be doors, and windows -- either bricked up or with glass in them -- and then ... barnacles growing on the walls?
I had to stop and walk up to one cluster of the organic things clinging to the stone. I squinted and peered at it through my tinted gas mask. It was definitely some sort of living growth crawling up the side of the building, but it had a sheen like metal, and maybe... tubes? Woven in and out of the reflective bubbles, even penetrating the walls like an electrical system was imitating an inside-out circulatory system. I reached out to touch one of the bubbles.
It popped open into an eye, which dilated and then focused, staring directly at me. Even though I hadn't managed to actually touch it, I stumbled back, grabbing my hand, and screamed. More bubbles blinked open, every single one of them swiveling to stare at me.
"Oh, you absolute moron," the Surgeon said. "Now he knows we're here."