We stood in a corridor made of pipes and metal panels. A dull, deep humming, almost a rumbling, pervaded the hall. A red indicator light was our only source of illumination. Jo's panting face, framed by long white hair that glowed red in the dim light, looked like a picture of a demon from a 16th-century religious treatise.
"Why don't you just call some light to your hands?" I said. "Stop looking like the devil himself and make it easier to get around this place."
"You don't look so hot yourself," said Jo. "Wide black eyes glowing red in the dim light. Pointy canines. Why don't YOU tell the machine to lead us to the center? It would be much safer than calling forth white light. Why do you think I started running? I can't have metal spiders trying to bite me! Did you never look behind you when we were running?"
"Looking behind just slows you down," I said. "But you're right. I can try to talk to the machine. Or listen, at any rate. Hold on a sec." I put my ear to the metal floor. "Nothing yet. Damn. Sorry."
"What exactly do they teach you in those shaman classes of yours?"
"Tools of effective leadership. How to be assertive. Meditation. Stuff like that. It's not a supernatural class, its a bunch of Baby Boomers trying to re-connect to what they lost when their parents moved to the suburbs. Now, please tell me what you know about this place. If anything."
"I don't even know where we are!" said Jo. "You saw the same as me, when we got below the clouds -- a landscape made entirely of metal plates bolted together, with the occasional exhaust port. How could anyone have written about this place if they never found it? I'm useless here."
"Not so," I said. "That's something I can work with: the fact that this place is off the map of Wizard knowledge. It means that nobody ever came here, or...nobody ever escaped." I turned to look down the dark hallway. "The latter is more likely. Wizards can bend the universe with a word, to glide gently down from the sky. Right? So we're in a place Wizards may have come, but never left. Did they die? Or did they stay?"
"You better hope they died," said Jo.
I turned to Jo. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Never mind. We'll escape this place anyway and I'll publish my findings. I'm sure we'll escape, because I have a Shaman to lead me. Right? You can just talk to the machine and have it tell us —"
"The machine's a She. Listen to the voice. It's kind of a contralto."
"You can't just ascribe female characteristics to a machine", said Jo. "You can't -- Why are you rising into the air? What are those lines of light all over your face? What's going on?"
She kept talking, but I tuned her out. The machine's voice was much louder in my ears. My body vibrated with the sound of her mighty voice.
Beings of Flesh, said the voice. You brought the massive stones down upon me and scarred my beautiful surface. You brought the metal people to my tunnels. You ugly little jerks, I ought to pound you into paste. What gives? What are you doing on my turf?
"We couldn't think of any place else to go besides one of your openings," I said. "And the destruction of the sky wasn't our fault, was it? We had no way of knowing the city's immune system would turn on itself."
Well, you're still two screwups. The least you can do is hide your heads in shame and beg forgiveness, and never set foot within me again.
"We do not deserve to feel shameful," I said. "We had absolutely no way of knowing our actions would result in untold destruction. Indeed, the only way to find out was the hard way."
Still, you have harmed me. You must make amends.
I'll tell you when you find me. If you can find me. Good luck.
I hit the ground and crumpled. My legs did not seem to be working. That hadn't happened when I spoke to the Chrysler Building. How odd.
Jo knelt beside me. "Are you okay? Do you want me to fashion you a chair?"
"Nah," I said, "there's no point. I have no idea where to go, so my legs will probably be fine by the time I finally —"
A pigeon appeared before us, in the dim red light.
"How about that," I said, "We must be in a city. Where else would you find pigeons?"
The pigeon fluttered away, into the darkness.
"Okay, I'm gonna need a wheelchair. We've got to follow that pigeon. Fast. Like, now. I mean, if you would please fashion me a means of transport..."
Jo spoke a word I couldn't quite place, and I rose a foot off the ground. "This is better than a wheelchair," she said. "Wheels on an uneven surface in the dark is a bad idea. Now, lead on."
I paddled forward with one hand into the darkness, following the sound of the pigeon's heartbeat. Jo held my other hand. Together, we ventured into the unknown.
"I've lost it," I said. "The noise of clanking machinery is drowning it out. The damn bird is gone."
"Oh, perfect," said Jo. "We're stuck in the darkness and now you have no idea where to go. Why were you following that pigeon anyway?"
"Oh," said Jo. "I can probably fashion something —"
"No," I said. "I don't want you to do everything for me. I'd like to think I can catch a damn pigeon. I never had trouble with the rats back in Brooklyn. Well, most of them. There was a big one with a rapier, he got away."
"Please," said Jo, "let me be useful to you. There's plenty of metal around here to work with anyway."
"You mean to use — wait, Jo, I don't think you should —"
But it was too late. I heard a loud creaking that went on for some time. Jo found my hands and pressed a lump of something soft into it. "Eat this bread," she said. "12-grain whole wheat. I made sure to leave out the preservatives."
The tunnel started to vibrate.
"Jo," I said, "I think you just tore off a piece of the machine's flesh and turned it into bread. Is that correct?"
"I needed something substantial for the 12-grain whole wheat," said Jo. "I could have used my hair, but that would have made noodles. I could have used the air, but that would just have made Wonder Bread. I can't just use ANYTHING for a spell, you know."
The tunnel started to shake violently. Red warning lights turned on and began to strobe slowly.
As it turned out, we were on a high catwalk. I peered into the darkness below. In the strobe of the red lights, I could see great turbines turning, robotic arms lifting huge weights, metal plates being carried by overhead conveyor. The usual processes for a factory. But across them flitted birds. Pigeons. There seemed to be a pigeon for every foot of cubic space. They flew between a chaotic network of thin cables that had been stretched tight across the space.
"Before the machine finds us and squashes us," I said, "please create a solid light and drop it off the catwalk. I would like to see how far down this goes."
Jo tore off a piece of railing, spoke a word I could swear was Greek, and threw it off the catwalk. It erupted into dazzling light as it fell, further illuminating the workings of the machine. For a second, I saw swinging masses in the middle distance that looked like church bells. It might have been a trick of the shadows, though, what with the piece of railing bouncing off the cables as it fell.
Two things were clear in the light: the machine was deep enough that the light shrank to a pinprick and vanished by the time it was finished falling, and there were pigeons all the way down. Did they ever land?
The rumbling grew louder.
"How far away do your spells work?" I shouted.
"Theoretically, the distance is only limited by the power of the wielder," shouted Jo. "Master can shoot a jet of steam a hundred yards, after preparing for ten minutes. I'm much weaker than him, though."
"We'll see about that," I said. "Try to make your piece of railing glow brighter! I want to see how far away the bottom is."
"But I can't —"
The rumbling grew louder, and the red lights flashed brighter.
"Please, Jo! One of the things leaders are supposed to do is get their followers to push the limits of their own abilities. Effective coaching 101. Now, I want you to try! if it doesn't work, I don't blame you, but you can at least try! I bet it's all a matter of will anyway."
"You don't understand," said Jo. "No wizard I've ever heard or read of could have any effect beyond 300 yards. You can't seriously expect me to attempt a distance that appears to be twenty times that? There's no way to direct the spell precisely beyond 200 yards. If I could reach that far, I might cause a piece of machinery to glow red-hot, or cause a puddle of oil to burst into flame, or..."
"This is an opportunity!" I said. "You have this chance to push the boundaries of wizardry!"
"What if I make everything explode?"
"We'll add that to our travelogue of this place! Now, show me what you can do."
Jo sat down and closed her eyes. She began to chant mysterious words. Her hair drifted up to float around her head, and her skin began to glow with yellow light, drowning out the red strobing around us. I turned to look down the catwalk. In Jo's light, my shadow extended far into the distance.
Eight-legged shapes crawled around near the end of my shadow. They turned, and skittered towards me.
"Jo," I said, "now would be a really good time to let go of the spell. We've got incoming."
She didn't respond.
Damn. "If anyone is listening," I shouted, "like a great machine, say, or a crowd of pigeons, or some benevolent entity that I haven't royally offended yet, I'd appreciate a bit of aid at this time. Maybe some guidance. Helpful hints. A flamethrower. Anything would be better than nothing, really." The spiders were getting closer. "Look, I'm sorry about the bread thing. I should have been more specific with what I wanted. I'm the leader right? The conduct of my followers is my responsibility. I can't claim to be blameless like what happened with Up New York."
I could hear the skitter of the spiders now. "But I'm perfectly willing to make amends if you would just do something about the spiders." They were fifty yards away now. "Hello? Anyone?"
There was a great creaking and groaning. The catwalk shook harder. A foot from where I floated, it began to seaparate with a great snapping of bolts and rivets.
"Great," I said, "That's a real big help, thank you. Now if you would just drop that section —"
Humans are so used to the pull of gravity that its sudden loss comes as a great shock to the system. Kind of a lurch inside, as one's internal organs have to rapidly adjust the new situation. So it was that when OUR section of catwalk broke and fell, I was unable to react in time to grab the railing. Consequently, when the catwalk hit a cable and bounced, I was flung off into the darkness, while Jo, still glowing brightly, was flung in a different direction.
I saw her strike a robotic arm. She didn't break, though, or even change her position, or stop glowing. The robotic arm broke, though. So did the fifteen other machine components Jo smashed into, as well as uncounted cables.
Well, good for her. I was going to get chewed up by a damn machine. Unless —
"Pigeons!" I cried. "I am your new master! I have millet and corn for you if you save me!"
One thing pigeons are not is dirty. What they are, fortunately for me, is easily tricked. So they gathered around me at once in a mass of feathers and beaks, pecking at my clothing in the hopes of finding grain. As more and more pigeons flocked around me, the ones closer to the center were pressed inward until they formed a tight ball. But this was not enough to hold them in place as we bounced between the cables. "Cables!" I cried. "I will avenge the deaths of your brothers and sisters if you save me and the pigeons!"
I felt the pigeons grow tighter around me. It was difficult to breathe by this point. Impossible, in fact. At least the thud of hitting cables was less heavy than before. I presumed we were tumbling down into the bottom of the machine. But I couldn't know. It was time to pass out.
I awoke on my back, a bright light shining into my eyes. Not the pretty blue sky this time, alas. I looked around. Surrounding me were masses of broken cable, dead pigeons, a few live ones, and...
People made of iron.
Iron hands reached beneath my armpits and dragged me upright, depositing me on my feet. I didn't crumple this time.
I couldn't tell the size of the room I was in, or even if it was a room, for iron people had me surrounded, standing shoulder to shoulder in a dense crowd. They made a massive banging as they struck their iron palms with iron fists. Not a one spoke, though, not aloud. Their mouths appeared to be iron. No sound could come from a mouth without lungs. But they didn't need to speak to make their intentions known; all they had to do was draw their fingers across their throats. There are a few different handsigns for "kill," all fairly easy to interpret. That twisting one looked nasty.
These people either knew morse code or sign language, and I only had time to choose one. I hurriedly signed "I love you." One of the few signs I knew.
They stopped banging their fists. Hopefully it was in confusion and not anger.
One of them made a sign I thought was "prove." And then "help." Or "save." The crowd rippled as people turned to those behind them, then those in front, passing something towards the center. The next moment, I was surrounded by chunks of wax. Big chunks. Occasionally a foot or an arm. A few heads.
I guess the wax people hadn't made it to the surface safely. I wondered how many of them had broken into pieces that could be re-assembled, and how many had simply been obliterated. And what of the cardboard people? And the vines? And the people made of music? Jo would know how to fix all of them, probably, if she found the right books, and maybe a Magician or a Sorceror would know how to put them back together, but breathing life back into them? That was the territory of the gods.
Maybe the machine was big enough to count as a divinity.
But how to contact her? She called me, the first time. How was I supposed to call her when I didn't have her number?
What, exactly, did shamans DO to contact the gods? Nonni had said something about 'shrooms. Well, I wasn't prepared to hallucinate with DRUGS. Yech! Drugs were bad! School told me so! But Nonni had also mentioned instruments. I had nothing of the kind.
I grabbed one of the cables and pressed its into the hands of one of the iron people. I crossed to the other side of the circle and pressed the cable's other end into someone else's hands. Then I mimed pulling a rope tight. The iron people stretched the cable taut. As soon as I repeated this action with a new cable, a number of people around me grabbed ends of the cables and held them taut. Soon I had a network of piano wire surrounding me. But this would not be enough to summon a god. I needed a beat. A heavy beat. A shake-your-bones beat. Fortunately, this crowd would be able to provide one.
I stomped my feet and clapped my hands, and then motioned everyone to follow my lead. The floor began to shake with the rythmic hammer-blows of the iron feet, and ringing with the strike of iron palm on iron palm. Yes. This was good. I started to play the cables, the one would play the exposed wires of a piano. None of them held a clear tone, but it was enough.
The pace of the beat increased steadily. Soon enough, my hands were raw from plucking cables, but I couldn't stop now. Not now. The Machine had not awoken yet. She had not spoken to me. I had not mortified myself enough to see her. I was still here and now, instead of wherever she was. My mind and soul were still on this earth. That had to change.
The beat was now so fast that the iron people had to use both feet to keep it, effectively running in place. The sound was tremendous. Whatever lived in here besides the Machine herself could probably hear it from a mile away.
And from that distance, a light grew and grew.
It was about the color of Jo's light, come to think of it. A brilliant yellow, hurtling right towards me.
The light struck, and my world went white.