"To reach Up New York", shouted Jo over the rain, "You have to be struck by lightning."
"You could have told me that before we climbed onto the spire of the Chrysler Building", I shouted up at Jo.
"And have you chicken out?"
"So you tricked me into holding onto a giant metal spire in the cold rain so I could get zapped by a million volts! And you didn't listen to me when I told you that the Chrysler Building doesn't want me hanging around! It spoke to me, Jo! For the first time in my life, a piece of the city spoke to me, and you didn't want to hear what it had to say! Why are you so hell-bent on letting your instructions lead us around when you could be paying attention to what's —"
The world rang with the sound of a great bronze bell, and everything turned white.
I found myself lying flat on my back, on a hard, uneven metal surface. Walls of bronze stretched high above me, and between them was the bright blue sky. Cirrus clouds flew above.
Jo's pretty face and white hair appeared between me and the sky. "See," she said, "it wasn't so bad after all."
I turned to my left arm, and shook it experimentally. Check. I tried the right arm. Check. No paralysis there. Right leg. Check. Left leg. Check.
I heard a deep hum coming from somewhere, beneath the sound of chaotic clanging and banging. I arose.
We stood in the middle of a street. As far into the distance as I could tell, the street was golden. Millions of footprints were impressed within it, as if the pavement were inches of snow packed down by a day's worth of passerby. But these footprints were all of bare feet, and their sources were obvious, for thousands of metal people were passing by and around us. Most of them had the metallic black color of wrought iron, although a few were blue-black steel. All went without clothing. What use has a metal person for cloth coverings? By the same token, a metal person ought to have a rather generic body shape, yet a slight majority of the people had the broad shoulders of men or the wide hips of women. And each face I saw was unique, just like the species these metal people were imitating.
Here and there was a figure almost as black as the wrought-iron people, but bits of silver showed through, and I knew these people were simply tarnished. A few polished silver figures shone in the distance.
"Great," I said, "You've taken me to the place where anyone who catches me can kill me."
"Don't be so acerbic," said Jo. "You can't guarantee that anyone would want to kill you. And they'd never be able to catch you, anyway."
"Suppose I decide to go up and touch them like they're park statues?"
"Then they might get angry, and give you a tap on the head."
I looked around. The towers blocked my field of vision east and west, and I couldn't see far enough north or south to be certain of anything. "Are you going to tell me why this place is called Up New York"? I said. "The only thing here that's Up is the towers, and I'm familiar with those."
"I'll show you momentarily. Here. Let's take the Subway Tram." She pointed behind me. I turned. A green-painted metal subway entrance stood before us, straight of Central New York. Well, they got one thing right here already.
As we descended the stairs, I said, "I can't wait to take the subway train. Especially after having to sit on those stone benches all the way to Back New York. What a pain! Boy, I'm sure glad this place has an air-conditioned, comfortable train —"
"It doesn't," said Jo. "I said Subway TRAM. As in, Cable Car."
"Why do you need a cable car underground?"
Jo laughed. "You might have benefited from studying this place beforehand, you know. Street Smarts can't tell you about places like this."
We reached the bottom of the stairs. Beyond a wide metal door-frame stood a crowded platform paved with golden tiles. At its other edge ran a high green railing, and beyond that, the clear blue sky. Cumulus clouds drifted below us. Above our heads was a ceiling of stone that stretched into the distance north, south, east, and west. To this ceiling was bolted a dense network of cables, running in every direction, except in the distance, where they passed around a massive, dark purple pillar that appeared to hold up the city. From the cables hung round, red, small-windowed, gold-trimmed —
"Hanging cable cars?" I said. "You want me to get into a cable car whose reputation I don't even know, over unknown heights. Jo, I'm really starting to —"
"Oh, don't worry," said Jo. "The worst that could happen down here is that we could fall. And it's high enough that we'll have time to think of something in case we do. I'm sure YOU will, if I don't. But I've got libraries full of spells in my head, Pat. Just trust me. Oh look, here's our ride!" One of the cars had pulled up to a green gate, which opened. The car disgorged many tens of passengers. "If these people trust the cable car, you can too. Come on." Jo took my hand and led me forward, towards the car.
We entered into a well-lit space whose diameter was about the length of a Subway car. Its red-walled interior had the classic plastic seats, in much greater quantities. Half of them were occupied. A few patrons stood at the windows, attempting to marvel at the sky through glass that had been designed to limit the view.
Some of these people were Iron. Others, I noticed, were made of a curious material with a waxy sheen. They tended to be white, or pink, and they all wore hats, and nothing else. Their features were more anatomically distinct than those of the iron people. Still, they had the same ratio of obviously male/female to androgynous.
The cable car lurched, and moved to some unknown destination.
I turned to Jo, and pointed to the Waxy people. "Are they actually made out of..."
"Shush! We can talk once we get to where we're going."
The buildings were made of cardboard.
The people were made of cardboard.
The sidewalks were made of cardboard.
The occasional Trabant trundled by. Instead of belching exhaust, the pollution that came out of its tailpipe was a generic chiptune.
"Good God!" I said. "I thought I had escaped that music when I threw my Gameboy away!"
"Then you're going to hate this district," said Jo. "Every door plays a chiptune when you open it."
"Like those musical greeting cards! Nonna always gives me one of those at Christmas. Let's not open any doors, shall we?"
"That won't save you," said Jo. "The sidewalks play music when you step on them."
"Then let's get out of here," I said. "Where's the nearest bus to the Bronze Towers?"
"Why don't I take you to the bus station", said Jo.
I plugged my fingers in my ears as we walked.
As we traveled, I could see a tall tan tower rising above the two-story buildings. At the top, a set of windows extended slightly outward from the tower's main body. Below and above it ran bas-reliefs of serpents and dragons.
And it was all made of cardboard.
"You're going to have to take your fingers out of your ears so I can explain," said Jo.
"What?" I said. "Can't hear you. Can't hear the damn chiptune on the bus radio. Sorry."
Jo grabbed my hands and pulled them away from my ears. "Listen! We're lucky to be the only ones on this bus, and the only thing now preventing me from explaining is your childish reaction to a minor annoyance. Do you want to hear about the wax people or not?"
"I do," I said, "as well as why we're heading away from the bronze towers." I turned to the cutout window. The towers were just visible in the distance. "What exactly is going on in this city?"
Jo sighed. "Remember how Down New York developed? How 900 million people had to fit into a single conurbation?"
"Because there was nowhere else to go, right. That place developed kind of organically, didn't it? Everybody had to figure out how to live in ultra-crowded conditions."
"And that means..." Jo made a "keep going" motion with her hands.
"That this place is the opposite. What's the opposite of ultra-crowded if not super-isolated? But these people aren't isolated, they're a big city with lots of people."
"No, no," said Jo. "The other part. The organic part. This city was built in a few days. "Collaborate," said Big Chief. "Build me a magnificent city in the sky, in the place where the Gods used to live before Turtle became the land. Come up with ideas for the layout and building materials, and show them to me at the next meeting. This was when he was still Chief."
"Oh, of course. He had to do it by committee."
"That's the American Way!" said Jo. "But he had final say over the project. Unfortunately, every single one of the committee members —"
"Promised him a great reward if he picked their idea. I know how this goes. So did he pick every idea to get all the rewards?"
"He did indeed. And not a single person was pleased that they had to share credit. So they gave him nothing. He fired them all and stood alone as Big Chief, and supervised everything. Especially in this district."
My cardboard seat finally crumpled under my weight. Not that the floor was any stronger. I found myself staring at a pair of cardboard wheels that were coming right towards my face.
"You're lucky the bus weighed very little," said Jo, as she touched my broken nose lightly with her wand.
We were walking to the end of Corrugate Lane. Jo had promised me a surprise there.
I shuddered as my nose shifted back into its usual shape. "If the bus had been heavy enough to squash me, I never would have fallen in the first place. Why didn't Big Chief just make a regular city area with cardboard people?" A sudden cold wind stung my ears. "Did he get mustard on the plans?"
"He might have gone a little too for towards homogenous in each area," said Jo. "All metal here, all cardboard there, all vines here, all glass there, all music here. He's not very creative, alas. Nor can he avoid conventional thinking very often. Remember all those hats? They were covering wicks. Big Chief thought he had to make the wax people candles. They are extremely sensitive about the subject. Which is why we're on the edge of the city —" she gestured to the end of the street — "Where the candle-people can't hear us. Also, you may want to see this."
We halted a few feet from the edge. There was no railing here. Just as well. It would have been made of cardboard.
Beyond us lay massive piles of clouds, rolling and roiling ever so slowly in the great currents of wind. And beyond them, a dark shape in the blue distance.
"Are those hills?" I said. "No, wait, they're too narrow to be hills. And what are those two round things side-by-side near the top?" The round things, metallic and gold, vanished for a split second, then reappeared. "Did they just...was that a blink? Did that thing just blink?"
"What do you mean, Blink?" said Jo. "Those aren't supposed to be active. What's going on? How did they turn on? Oh dear."
"Jo," I said, "What ARE those? And why are you nervous?"
"Those are the last proposal," said Jo, worry in every line of her face. "Those were Trashcan Pete's idea. Have a set of robot giants carry the city on a plate. But Big Chief must have had them made for some other purpose, and those things have really long arms...and legs...oh dear. Tell me if it's getting closer, will you? I have to check my notes." She knelt and rummaged through her bag.
The creature didn't appear to be approaching. Not that it would be easy to tell at this distance. But it wasn't moving either. No lurching or swaying or —
Its wide mouth opened, and I heard the faint strains of a jaunty Chiptune.
"Here we go!" said Jo, standing up and opening her notebook. "The Yayas, also known as the Great Grand Mothers. These massive techno-organic beings will defend the great city of Up New York from active and potential threats. Pirates, scoundrels, warlords, and demigods be warned: if you hear a jaunty chiptune faintly in your ear, it's time for you to turn around and head back the way you came. This is your only warning."
"Wait," I said, "There's more than one?"
"Sure!" said Jo. "One for each cardinal point of the compass, one for each lesser point, and one to slowly spin the city on its finger."
Those things must have been farther away than I thought. Surely they wouldn't be able to get close in time. Right?
The chiptune in my ears became louder.
"Tell me, Jo. What happens if a chiptune is playing in your ears and you're already IN the city?"
"I've got nothing in my notes. I don't remember the book saying anything."
I turned to her. "And how many people, exactly, have taken the lightning road to this place?"
"Master told me that if it worked, we'd be the first."
"And do you suppose that the Yayas would distinguish between piratical marauders and tourists?"
"I don't know."
I turned back to the figure in the distance. "And do you think that the Great Grand Mothers know what to do if someone gets past their defenses?"
"I presume they will try to swat them." Jo began to shiver. "But if they try to do it to us here in Cardboard Town..."
A lot of people who recount being struck by lightning talk about how they didn't really experience it. They were just sitting there, and suddenly they were flat on their back, in pain, never having heard any crash of thunder or flash of light. Perhaps it was too sudden. Or, perhaps, the amount of information to process in that instant was too much for the human brain to handle. In any case, there was no real way to brace oneself.
In a similar vein, I suddenly found myself falling through the air next to Jo. A mess of cardboard tumbled down through the air above and below us, as well as massive chunks of stone. Jo's hair and cape streamed upward in the wind. I looked up. Past Jo's notes, which fluttered in a cloud of paper, the massive plate the city sat on seemed to be tilting, wobbling on its axis. Tiny, shiny figures were sliding off the rim. Bronze towers were cracking as their weight shifted into positions their materials couldn't handle. I felt sorry for whomever had gotten caught in the cable cars.
For everyone, really. Especially since the city was now sliding off its pillar. At least they'd all fall together.
As I watched, four more pillars rose up through the clouds and took their place next to the central one, followed by a flat shape that connected them at the base, followed by a massive trunk whose other end was out of sight below the clouds. This combined shape, presumably a hand, tilted down to catch the city flat, the way one might catch a falling frisbee. The city met the hand. The city broke into pieces, and tumbled out of the hand's grasp. I guess some functions of hands didn't scale up very well past a hundred million tons.
Jo shouted something that I could not hear over the wind. She swam over to me and wrapped her arms around me, and hugged me close. She muttered a word I had not heard before. I heard a big FLOOF as her green cape extended outward into a set of mighty wings. My legs lurched downward as the force of gravity tried to re-assert my normal orientation towards the earth. Instinctively, I wrapped my legs around Jo's.
"Sorry about all that," said Jo. Her wings beat loudly, but it wasn't as loud as falling. "I had no idea that the Yayas would act so rashly."
"There's a lot your books can't tell you," I said. "Without field experience, they can't recount everything. Somethings are important, but too obscure to ever write down. Like, what was Big Chief thinking when he built the Yayas? The minutes of those meetings might prove useful, though. Very useful. We're going to have a talk with Big Chief when we get back to Central. If we get back. You know how to get back, right?"
"I said, you know how to get back, right?"
"No," said Jo. "My notes were all about pushing certain buttons in the elevators. Those elevators aren't gonna work now."
"Hang the notes!" I said. "Notes are only a start! What about your own creativity? What about applying your notes to reality? It's time to sink or swim, Jo. Time to fish or cut bait! Time to get off the pot or —"
"I'll just see if we can get down to the ground," said Jo. "That's priority one. And Pat?"
"I'm really sorry about what happened. I've led you into a lot of danger by following my notes, haven't I?"
"That's what I was trying to tell you earlier."
"I'm glad you're taking this so calmly."
"That's what I sound like? Huh. I thought I was angry. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'm very angry. But mostly not at you." I hugged her closer. "Mostly. You tricked me. You got me struck by lightning. But you have shared in everything I have experienced while following you. You've never made me do something you didn't want to do. And I don't blame you for the Yayas. That's Big Chief's doing. Just be more willing to listen to me, alright? I want to lead you, for once. That's what I'm supposed to be doing, right? Leading people. My family. My tribe. You're part of both. You're my wizard. I would like the chance to be your shaman."
We glided in a slow spiral, down to the clouds below.