Skids' magelight showed me a widening gash in the dry, reddish dirt before us. After a few seconds I could see that the ground was being split apart by two buried metal plates. The movement stopped after about a minute, leaving a shallow hole about two metres square and half a metre deep. Skids jumped down and I followed, each landing on the revealed dusty metal floor with a light clang. In response to another mystical gesture from Skids, the floor began to gradually lower beneath our feet. This produced a rather unsettling sensation.
"This is a magical elevator?" I asked when the low hum began to bother me.
"Yeah. They take some getting used to. Do your people have elevators? I didn't see any."
"Not in Forrester's Crossing, but the bigger cities do. Ours use pistons though, not magic."
"Of course." The platform stopped, and Skids shone dro's light forward. "Well, here we are."
The sight before me was not the entrance to some grand, mystical hive that I had anticipated. Instead, I saw a small vehicle, somewhat like a short, roofless railway carriage. It was composed of shiny grey and orange metal, with bars instead of walls, and no roof. Inside were five rows of seats with an aisle down the middle, again very similar to a railway carriage. The seats were softly illuminated by a bluish light source somewhere in the floor. The vehicle was not attached to any kind of engine, and had no occupants. Most notably, it was resting on the nearer of two sets of railway tracks.
I took a hesitant step closer to see it better. "What's that?"
"That's our ride into the hive. Pick a seat and we'll be there in just a few more minutes," Skids said cheerily, laying a gloved hand on one of the horizontal bars. The bar swung free, leaving space for me to step up into the carriage.
I walked all the way up the middle and let myself drop into the front seat to the right of the aisle. The individual seats with armrests differed from our carriages which had wooden benches with cushions to sit on. "How does it move on the rails without anything to... Oh, magic."
"Yep, it's like your trains but it doesn't need a 'steam engine' to pull or push it. There's an aetherbottle and that magically turns the wheels." Skids took the seat across the aisle from me.
"The aether is expended and requires refilling?"
"Mmhm. That's pretty common drone work."
"So an aetherbottle is not all that different to our steam accumulators," I said, thinking aloud. "Perhaps..."
An unknown voice cut in. "Welcome travellers. Please secure all loose items and keep all parts of your body inside the trolley at all times. Safety bars have been locked. We are now departing for Yiwarra Central. If this is not your intended destination, please signal a stop code. Departing in ten... nine..." It was clear, calm, not quite monotonous, and did not seem to come from any particular direction. Something about the cadence felt unnatural.
"Who's talking?" I whispered to Skids.
"What? Like a resin?"
"...one," the voice finished.
A pair of brilliant white lights shone out of the front of the vehicle, similar to Skids' magelight at maximum brightness. Once my eyes had adjusted to the sudden increase in light, I could see the rails feeding into a pair of tubular tunnels ahead of us. The vehicle started forwards with an unnatural whine. While it was a sudden start, it did not accelerate so hard as to continuously push me against the back of my seat.
"It's not as impressive as the transit system in Wonambi, City of Darkness, City of Magic, where the blind fish stares and the water spouts, but it's a decent enough introduction," Skids said, looking around at the smooth grey walls. The tube began angling down slightly.
"This is quite impressive enough," I said breathlessly. "Er, how far down are we going?"
"I don't actually know, but my scryer should have that information," Skids said, reaching for dro's backpack which dro had tossed onto the seat beside drome.
"Never mind," I said, realising that was not my top priority. "What should I know before I get to the city and meet other mages?"
"Ooh, good question! Hmm... You'll just need to follow me to the medical clinic, show a nurse your injuries, and explain your symptoms. I can help answer any questions you don't understand, and rall should be able to take it from there. Oh, you'll need to give a suitable name."
I was mostly following, until that last part. "Suitable in what way?"
"Sorry, I never explained that, did I? Mage names are all exactly five letters, so 'Charity' won't fit any of the forms. And I think we can both agree that 'Chars' is a very bad idea."
I began to nod, but immediately regretted moving my head so fast. The motion of the tunnel vehicle after the magical escalator was not good for my sense of balance, on top of feeling sleepy and generally unwell. Best not to think about that though. "Yeah, not 'Chars' and 'Chari' is just as bad. 'Chara'... I don't like the sound of that. 'Charm'? No, that feels all wrong."
"If you want something that starts with 'ch', did your, uh, parents have any more ideas for naming offspring?"
I could tell that Skids was weirded out just by asking such a question. It was nothing compared to what I figured I would soon be facing, but I appreciated the effort. Though now that I thought about it, Skids had already faced being surrounded by utter strangeness, and with hostility at the same time. I was having a much easier introduction to a new culture. But none of this reflection was helping me remember any names.
"Hmm, there was one short one. What was that? Uhh... Names, short girl names... Oh! Chloe! Yes, I think I could stand to be called 'Chloe' for paperwork purposes."
"Chloe it is. Chloe. Sure, that will work," Skids echoed, getting used to saying it. "Alright, that's settled. What else?" dro asked dro's self. "Some scans, those should be no trouble. You just have to stay still enough and follow basic directions. And don't panic. Um... Oh, samples! Are you sunny folks familiar with blood extraction?"
By the Great Maker's steam-powered pipe organ, what? "Blood. Extraction. Explain!" I was gripping Skids' shoulder with both hands and shaking drome as hard as I could, which was not much. I had no memory of leaping from my seat, but I knew it must have happened.
"Hey, hey, take a bite out of some calm there," Skids said in a tone which was blessedly effective at soothing me. "It's just a little bit of blood. You won't miss it. I'm sure you'll notice it less than however you got the injury in the first place."
The ongoing whining sound briefly increased, first coming from vaguely ahead of us and then rapidly falling behind. It was a similar vehicle in the other tube going the opposite way, I realised. "Was that another one of whatever this is? A trolley?"
Skids nodded while helping me back into my seat. "Yeah, we passed halfway. The trolley goes both ways at the same time so they are never both at the same station."
"That makes sense, I suppose. There's no fixed schedule?" All the Pure's rail travel was carefully scheduled, and everyone knew when to expect passenger service to be available.
"Nah, we can come and go as we please. If a time gets too busy and people don't want to wait around, they just adjust so they're travelling sooner, or later. Though a surface link like this one is a lot less busy than routes within or between hives, even at night. Hardly anyone goes to the surface during the day, of course."
That made sense, though there was a notable exception at hand. "You did."
"Yeah, your folk don't take too kindly to nighttime visitors, so when I knew I'd be visiting, I got myself on a matching sleep schedule. Though I failed to account for how badly you take daytime visitors. I'd hoped I might get to ask some questions and then at worst have to run away to avoid, I dunno, having stuff thrown at me. Not having a bolt thrower pointed at me."
"I suppose you have magical weapons, other than the gloves and throwy thing. The aether boosted—"
"ABAM, but no, that and the gloves all I have, and they're mainly for defensive use. I'm not really comfortable with magical weapons, and there's not much need for them when sticking to the cities and the rails. There aren't any aggressive dangerous creatures worth worrying about. Dangeropes aren't out at night. I suppose we might have walked into a group of bounders but they generally don't mess with people and they scare easy."
That was missing the human dangers. "I understand that you were not concerned about us sun people, but what about raiders?"
"They would have to be very stupid or desperate to cause any trouble around a hive entrance, and I'm fast enough on my spinnerbike that I would have been gone before they realised they'd seen me. Besides, the chance of riding into a group of raiders by chance is extremely low. I do have a knife as a last resort, but I'd much rather talk my way out of trouble, or stun and run."
"Talking didn't work so well for you yesterday."
"Yeah, you win some, you lose some. Not that your father gave me a chance to talk."
"Speaking of talking your way out of things, I didn't forget that we were talking about the plan to take my blood."
"Hey, it's only a little bit," Skids said, holding dro's fingers a finger-width apart. "Enough for the carers to take a look at it and better figure out what's wrong with you and how to fix it. I would have thought that with all your people's obsession with glass and mirrors and lenses that you'd have microscopes."
"We do!" I said more defensively than I intended. "We just don't look at people's blood with them." A shudder ran through me, this one due to my disgust at the concept rather than being a symptom of my illness.
"Then how were your clerics planning on healing you?"
"Through... healing," I said, realising it was not a particularly useful answer. "That is a gift given to the clerics by the Great Maker."
"But they can't just heal everyone?"
"Only the most devout or the most in need. Otherwise we would become ungrateful and lazy."
"You seem sufficiently in need to me," Skids said, frowning.
"My father has many other daughters, so his need is not as great as that of a father who already lost many to sickness. Therefore, an act of very great piety was required to gain him attention."
"That hardly seems fair to you! You were the one dying, not him. I get that your, uh, co-daughters?"
"Thanks. I get that your sisters have the same parents as you but I don't think that should make you completely redundant. They're different to you, right? Your sisters?"
I almost laughed at the idea. "Yes, very different. Even Chyler and Chyley are different from each other, and they're identical twins."
"Oh? Interesting. Back to my point, maybe you can begin to understand why I felt I should take you away from people who think like that. You don't need to have all your sisters die first to pay for healing. Or me."
"I... see what you are trying to say, but there is a lot you do not understand about the law or the reasons behind it."
"Perhaps you could enlighten me," Skids said with a new sharp edge to dro's voice. "Because what you've told me sounds a lot like extortion."
"You... You cannot just say something like that! The cleric's are the Great Maker's chosen... Ohhhhh." All thought of clerics and sisters and healing flew out of my head like a magical trolley out of a tunnel.
The magical trolley had exited the tunnel. We had been travelling slightly downwards and to the left for several minutes, passing through the tube like the meal of a theoretical city-sized dangerope. (I desperately hoped such a creature did not exist.) Now we had entered the stomach of the beast, or rather, the hive. That was a rather confusing choice of metaphor, but I was not feeling up to finding a better one. It was what had come to my mind, so I worked with what I had.
It was a shock to go from the bland confines of a tight featureless tunnel to the station with its wild splashes of light and colour. In every direction I looked, my eyes were grabbed by brightly lit signs. On second glance, I realised that they were all lit from within, and many of them were continuously changing. They were not mere signs, but something akin to Skids' scryer. Artificial light, created and controlled by invisible forces. Magic. Something forbidden and to be feared. Magic, all around me.
Not just magic, but mages too. There were a few dozen human-shaped figures standing on the platform or sitting on benches, more walking around, and a few visible beyond what I took to be the station's exit doors. Most wore robes, and some were in outfits similar to Skids', but all were strikingly unusual. Each person had vividly coloured hair, or oddly shaped hair, or obviously patterned skin, or strangely decorated clothing, or something else which did not fit my expected specifications based on years of seeing people in Forrester's Crossing. Many displayed multiple such features, and most sported an obvious main colour. Those with overall more subdued colour choices had a single bright colour displayed in accessories such as earrings, bangles, or sashes.
"Welcome travellers," said the exact same voice as had spoken at our departure. "We have arrived at Yiwarra hive central station. Safety bars have disengaged. Please ensure you take all the correct items with you when you exit the trolley."
I sat in silent expectation of further information from the voice. "That was all? I thought it would tell us where to go or what to do next."
"Nah, that's entirely up to us. Any information we might need can be found in my scryer," Skids said, rising from dro's seat. "Follow me."
I stood and tried to follow, but found myself stuck. My left hand had seized up and was gripping one of the safety bars without my say-so. "Um, help?" I tried prying my aching fingers loose with my other hand, but somehow the bad hand was stronger. I was stuck. No clinic, no healing, no living.
"You can't let go?" Skids asked, leaning down to examine my unwanted grip.
"It seems that way," I said neutrally, unsure of what to think about this. Maybe my body was trying to protect me from something worse than death? Or maybe I was not thinking clearly.
"I've never heard of anything like this before. You?"
I shook my head. "This is beyond simple muscle spasms. Could this be magic?"
"No, I don't see any way it could be. Perhaps an aether leak... no, that makes no sense. Your other hand seems unaffected, so it can't be that. Maybe it's just glue on the bars. Someone's idea of a prank."
"It doesn't feel sticky," I reported.
Skids pulled on my wrist, and I winced at the pain. My grip did slide along the bar though, proving that the hand was not actually adhered. "Maybe I can pull your thumb around." Dro turned out to be correct. Dro's arm strength overpowered my thumb, and I was soon free.
"Thanks," I said, both relieved and not. "What was that all about?"
"We might find out, at the clinic. You'd better not grab onto anything until we get there, yeah?"
"Yes," I agreed, and followed Skids out of the trolley. "So, putting my personal weirdness aside for now, what would happen if a visitor came down here without a scryer to give them directions?"
Skids turned and looked at me as if I had suggested someone should leave a copy of the Codex in the middle of a solar collector. Well, maybe not quite that extreme, but close. "A mage without a scryer? That's like you without, um..."
"My handbag?" I suggested, holding up the bag which was still slung over my shoulder.
"Do you take it with you absolutely everywhere with no exceptions? Would you feel lost or helpless without it?"
"Yes," I said definitively. "Point taken." We sat on an empty bench on the platform, only a few steps away from the now empty trolley. The bench was a light blue colour and I assumed it was painted metal, but it did not feel cold and hard enough for that. There were too many strange things around me to be able to pay further attention to something so mundane as a bench surface. Skids had pulled out the scryer and was adjusting the levers rapidly, so I looked on in fascination.
"Let's see... Yiwarra structure scry... medical clinic... central district... by availability and then walking time... scrying... scrying... there we go, that's not too far. Out the main doors, right then left after... Locking in the route... Done."
"Amazing," I said quite honestly. "That is almost as fast as asking a knowledgeable local resident for directions, and much faster than finding such a person to ask." I followed Skids from the bench to the exit doors. Perhaps they would be better described as exit windows, as they were completely transparent. "Glass doors seem like a hazard," I said as we drew near. "Someone might—"
The two framed panes in front of us silently slid apart. "Magical moving window-doors. Of course," I said, annoyed at myself for not seeing that coming.
"And they're not glass," Skids added as we walked through and out onto the street.
"Of course not. You have magical unbreakable fake glass."
"I don't think it's actually magi... Never mind."
There was so much to take in, everywhere I looked. Everything was new and unusual. The very organisation of things in the available space was unusual. I was stuck in a constant realisation that I had never really stopped to think much about my surroundings. Wilison Farm and Forrester's Crossing was simply how things were. Home. Normality. I had never really had to describe it, because everyone else knew it already, and there was nothing to compare it to. Now I was being bombarded with sights and sounds which were not home, not normal.
I now realised how utterly rectangular every home and shop I had known was. This had not been a noteworthy fact until confronted with structures which were otherwise. It took me a lot of staring to really understand what I was seeing. The corners were all wrong, and the angles between the sides were unsettlingly large. Everything was built on a hexagonal plan, not square. Intersections were crossings of three roads, not two. And on top of that was the lack of sky.
Every few seconds I glanced upwards. Every time, I saw the patchwork of hexagonal tiles which made up the ceiling, not many metres overhead. The walls of the buildings went all the way from the ground to the ceiling. Could it even be called the ground? None of it looked natural, so it was really a floor. In a few disconcerting patches, the ceiling was either absent or transparent, allowing a distant view up to what looked like another layer of similar hexagonal buildings and triangular streets. My brain could not decide whether to feel like I was outdoors, or indoors, which was very unsettling.
At least the all-encompassing strangeness helped keep me from dwelling on how much I should not be here. Mostly.
A few wagon-sized vehicles quietly rolled along the streets under their own magical power, carrying mages and their goods. More mages travelled on foot on unnaturally neat paths between the road and the hexagonal housing. Some of the houses had gardens, complete with flowers and shrubs, all bathed with unnatural light. Many of the lights were not just unnatural, but downright weird. The weird ones did not seem to provide illumination to some surfaces and objects, while others stood out brighter than fish in a tank in a dark room. The colours were comparble to glowing fish or cats too, rather than anything that would be visible under daylight. Mages' clothing designs, accessories, and tattoos were especially prone to this vivid glowing effect when exposed to the otherwise dark 'lights'. I had to stop and pinch my arm to make sure I wasn't trapped in some bizarre fever dream, or nightmare.
"Ow." This was real. For a moment I feared that I would be unable to stop pinching my arm, but my left hand seemed to have gone back to normal, other than occasional shakes.
"Almost there," Skids said, snapping me out of my overawed staring. My guide had taken hold of my wrist — the right one, avoiding my hurting left hand — to ensure we could not be separated, and so I could not accidentally walk into the street while trying to look at everything. Dro steered me around a non-square corner and through a single-pane magically sliding window-door. We had entered the sterile green-tinged confines of the 'medical clinic'.
The next few hours were both overwhelmingly fascinating and tortuously boring. Everything new got old very quickly. As time wore on, my tired brain blurred everything together. Sitting in a comfortable chair waiting for long enough that I could not remember how it had ever felt comfortable. Officially meeting a second mage, a carer named Penlo. Not being able to ask any questions, as my only role was to answer them. Answering the same questions repeatedly. Figuring out my date of birth by the mages' calendar. Describing my symptoms. Describing my symptoms again. Testing my hands' range of motion. Waiting again. Penlo telling me I would feel a 'slight pressure'. Trying not to freak out knowing there was a needle in me, while not really caring about the pain from it. More waiting. More questions. Explanations from Skids which did not really explain much. Trying not to freak out at feeling the magical scan over my body. Being fascinated by the magical body scanner. Being fascinated by everything else. Waiting and having to stare at the same things forever. Swallowing more medicine pebbles. Almost falling asleep.
Being led to an uncomfortable bed surrounded by curtains. Skids saying something about a hotel. Penlo saying something reassuring.
Actually falling aslee...