“It’s coming,” she licks her lips. “Won’t be long now. Can see it.”
“Yes you can,” I say. Through the gaps in the tangled web above me, I can see the sky is already churning, clouds of purples and greys gathering like foam. How long until it arrives? Hard to say. It’s never the same.
“Can we stay up here?” She turns to me, the edges of her mouth pricking with a hopeful smile. “Miss? Would that be ok?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I laugh at the question. Ludicrous and yet so hopeful. “Unless you want to drown.”
The datastreams slow as the Lab starts steadying itself for the storm. You can almost feel It rouse from the murky depths of Its datasort, picking up alerts from the sentinels. Reminds me a bit of a lupine-meld sniffing the air for signs of trouble. Is It annoyed? I think It is. Hel knows I would hate to be disturbed in the middle of such a handsome output, especially considering all that work we had to do first, purifying the bloodlines after the last Mating.
“You can hear the storm!” Lilla gives me that hopeful look again, as though I’m going to change my mind. Silly thing. The basket in her hands almost tips, the mushrooms almost spill to the floor. I look at her. “Sorry,” she mumbles, holding it aright once more. Hel, she’s young. I forget how annoying they can be when they’re young.
“I can’t hear anything, but it’s surely close.” I just want to skin this last hose before we go, strip it all clean of mushroom growth, then I’ll be satisfied with a job almost well done. I slide the blade between fungi and pipe and scrape, listening to the mushrooms tumble into my basket like heavy rain. I love that sound. So satisfying. Mind you, I’ve always enjoyed farming up top. As I scrape, the dark skin of the hose begins to show through, even beneath the web of stubborn tendrils which look like matted hair glued tight.
My stomach suddenly pitches. “Whoo,” I blow cooled air from my lips. The datastream has slowed right down, a sudden deceleration as the Lab focuses on whatever weather data It’s receiving from our busy little skybound sentinels. Lilla feels it too and giggles, holding her belly like an expectant hippie. I’m glad she can laugh. It won’t be long til she gets used to the streampatterns and realises what it means for a such a sharp slowing in computation. But you don’t let children know that. That’s what my sister says. Like with money. You don’t let children know for real-real when it’s all gone.
I pick up my basket. “Righty-hey, I think we’re almost done here.”
There’s a wave of sentiment thrust at me. About time, it feels like. Oh It’s annoyed all right. The Lab is mighty pissed, in fact. Got a mega storm approaching and meanwhile Its humans are dallying about so high up and uncapped. It’s got bigger things to worry about. I almost want to apologise. Instead I shrug It off like a proper brat.
A distant rumble.
“Toldja I could hear it!”
“Shut up, girl,” but I can’t resist looking out of the big windows. The only view I’m getting is straight up through the pipework, into the grey sky, still trembling with anticipation of the oncoming storm.
I peel back the curtains of ivy and bionic tubing. The view is still much the same but somewhere northwards, you can see what looks like a dark, tight little knot of cloud. An embroidery stitch punctuating the sky. So far and yet so loud? Shit it. The gutters had better be secure or we’ll all be drowning whether uncapped or safe below.
We take the lift down. Two floors and I can feel the hairs on my arm trying to stand, the gooseflesh irritating me beneath the fleece lined sleeves, tightly pinned and wrapped over with pleather strips, which took me ages this morning. The temperature has dropped something sudden and the Lab is too busy clanking away, noisily girding Its loins to bother upping the interior temperature. Lilla starts to shiver but when I look at her she stops, giving me a defiant sort of grin like it don’t really bother her. This performance is one of the reasons I prefer not to train them so young. Or at least not Lilla. Bless her. She’s a good worker, I keep telling myself. A good worker, just annoying. Just young.
What’s the order again? I thought you were meant to feel the wind first, the bow winds, I think they’re called. My old tutor used to put it like poetry: “Heralding the approach of the beam like the white wave at the prow of them old seaships.” I’m sure it was the winds first, then the temperature drop and then–
We are still descending when I hear the deep-thunder. It’s come. We’ve not gone down five floors in all but it’s come. It’s close enough to the city that the deep-thunder can be heard, which means if you were planning on escaping the storm, you are damn well too late, my dear. Were we still up there with only gangly ivy and metallo-ceramic piping for a roof, we’d be feeling the sky spitting down on us. Now, we’re stuck in the lift and it’s getting colder. The lift is slowing too. Oh, this must be some mega bad storm for the Lab to have forgotten about us.
The carbon beams straighten, bracing themselves. We just scrape past another floor in the time we should have reached the ground. The datastream, now so slow it’s almost silent, trickles away from my awareness like an embarrassed spectre. I never realised how nasty the hard-Lab sounded beneath the gentle tinkery of its output, the soft-Lab we all hear in our heads. It groans, It creaks in that teeth grinding, sick making way only metal can.
I think Its scared.
“It’s not real though,” Lilla pipes up, her teeth chattering. I hold her close to me so she can share my warmth but the bint’s shivering with more than cold. “It’s not a real storm.”
“And what, pray tell my lady, is a real storm? What’s this then if not a real storm?” I give her a little jog, like she was a toddler. “Eh, my girl, answer me that,” she’s calmer now, not shivering so much. I can feel her quieten as I stroke her shaved head. Hel, but it’s been a long time since I walked around all shaven like that. Certainly feels it.
“It’s just a bloody Cloudshifter. A bloody Cloudshifter driven by a bloody Baron.”
“Oh is that so my lady?”
“It’s too cold, Miss,” Lilla says.
I shrug. “Not that bad,” I say. But it is. She’s right.
“You’re squeezing me, Miss,” Lilla says.
“Sorry love,” I loosen my grip on her, though I’ll be honest I didn’t realise I was holding on so tight. Oh Hel, I pray to a goddess I don’t own. Don’t let us fall. Don’t let the Lab forget about us two pathetic little humans trapped in Its metal veins. Don’t, just don’t the Lab let us drop.
The light-beams, they say, don’t make any noise. It’s the clouds they stir up. That horrible, deep screaming sound, the one like a rasping wicce’s laugh, as she chomps down on metal and opens wide her bloody mouth for you to see, yes that sound (I must have watched that film a hundred times as a bint). That’s the clouds the beam brings, swirling around it like foggy moths doomedly encircling a fiery pillar.
The sky beyond us is breaking, the deep-thunder now transformed into a ripping, cracking sound that clashes through the air, through the city, right through our heads. I think I hear Lilla scream. She squeezes the air out of me, holding me so tight my breasts hurt as she tries to bury her head between them.
“Thought you said it wasn’t a real storm,” I tease, but it’s more to myself, to think of the foolish thing a silly chit of a girl apes without knowing any better.
The maelstrum pushes against the Lab but It holds firm, It doesn’t break. It bends, but It doesn’t break. The Lab is concentrating in a way I have never felt before. Where only minutes ago I could hear nothing as it tried to gather all the latest news about the storm, now all I hear is the strain of it thinking as it recalibrates and recalculates – its positioning, its tautness, the tensile strain, the slight rotation. Its taking some of my memory too, though I’m not sure how much good it will do. The true meldminds, downstairs in their snug little cots, brains hooked up to the Lab’s hivemind, they must be doing most of the gruntwork.
What is this Cloudshifter, passing above us? It must be a mighty palace of a thing to incur such a storm. Every now and again we slip, the jolt shocking me back to reality, to the reality of our cold, our standing at almost 45 degrees to our original position, little Lilla screaming in my arms. Little Lilla, third day of farming, thinking herself all grown enough to swear at Cloudshifters and the Barons what drive them.
Big and fast. I know they weld them together in the sky, they’re that big. I was born in a ship making Lab, you see, not a scrubby spindly data miner like this shop (no offence). I’m not boasting, mind you – it’s hardly a thing to boast of. You can find Labrats all over the Kingdom who’ve seen bits of a ship, one half gleaming, glossy coloured and smooth, the other half like the underbelly of a squashed cockroach, pipes and internals wriggling around seeking their plugs. They floated them up like that to join them in the sky and there they stay, though parts of them may come crashing down from time to time, heedless of what they might squash. Labs these days are wise to that sort of thing, but that shows how much things have changed. Even in my day was a rare Lab smart enough to react in time to a descending ton of bionised metals and ceramic wiring.
I’m babbling to myself, that’s how I know for sure the Lab is skimming. Taking off the memory It thinks I can do without. Take it, I tell the Lab, though I don’t need to. No wonder the Labs seem so impatient with us humans sometimes.
It’s when the wind hits us the other way that we fall. One jolt, two jolts and with a shudder, the Lab releases us. Lilla’s normally piercing scream sounds distant, like she’s running away from me, though I have enough cerebral activity to remember she is in my arms, clutching onto me for dear life. Poor silly girl. Only her third day farming and no chip yet implanted to render her retrievable if we die.
The bigger the storm, the bigger the ship. The bigger the ship, the bigger the storm. Do they up top remember we still exist, do you think, that they keep treading paths through our Labs, through our cities. Or do they think their ships are born like magic, birthed from the clouds they live on like the mushrooms springing up from condensation on the pipes.
It’s hard to think straight when one’s mind is riddled with dynamic equations.
I can’t count how many floors we pass, though I’m sure it’s a good deal many. I think Lilla has vomited. Or pissed herself. There’s a whiff of something unpleasant. Come now, Hel, I reason with the goddess I don’t own. Is this how it’s going to be?
After that I can no longer feel myself. I’m in the hivemind now, with all the other melders. There’s a disquieting rippling sort of feeling, like something’s been uprooted and is flapping back and forth in the violent wind. We turn to it, like it’s some sulking little brat. The Lab resinks the foundation beam, drawing Itself nearer to the ground for safety. I never realised you did that, I think, almost like a child. Of course the Lab doesn’t reply, too busy, or too offended or both. One of my meld-colleagues gives me a conspiratorial nudge.
The Lab focuses on the Cloudshifter’s light-beam that has passed us by, piercing through the sky now black with thick swarming clouds that look like sickness. I think Its furious. It straightens itself, tries to get a grip on internal workings left to their own devices, and it does so with all its strength, putting what can only be described as anger – for that’s how it feels to me, never mind It’s a Lab – to use as the last of the storm passes by, slapping us almost mockingly with remnants from less fortunate buildings.
The Cloudshifter has long since passed and now the winds are following suit. The storm dies and dissipates until at last, it’s all over. The sky is grey once more. And still.
We breathe in as one and breathe out as many. I wake, but keep my eyes closed. In spite of myself I try to keep my consciousness with the hivemind. I try, but am gently expelled. I don’t particularly want to wake, though, for fear of what I might find wrapped in my arms.