Chapter 21 - Erris
After a wild dream where I flew through the clouds surrounded by a whirl of colors, I awoke to find myself in a very nice jail cell with Jenna and a splitting headache.
Trying in vain to ignore the throbbing pain in my head, I glanced around my cell. For a prison, it was awfully well furnished: The bed I was sitting on was soft, the frame made of carved wood. There was even a small dresser for a prisoner to keep his or her stuff.
Jenna activated with a start as I sat up. “Oh, good! You were out for so long, I was starting to worry the effects were permanent.”
I started to nod and immediately regretted it. My headache was awful, far worse than anything I’d ever felt in the past.
“I’m so sorry!” Jenna said, wringing her hands as I clutched my throbbing skull. “It tasted refreshing to me; I didn’t realize it’d have such a strong effect on a bio-form.”
“It’s fine.” I told her, still wincing at the sharp pain in my head.
“We call it runoff.”
Jenna and I turned to see a most peculiar person looking back at us. I gathered from the voice that it was a woman, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. She was wearing a pair of blue jeans, a fluffy black sweater, two enormous boots, a leather coat, a turban, and a vivid red scarf that covered her face, save her goggles which were visible through two holes in the scarf. I supposed there was a vague hint of a feminine shape, but it was subtle enough to prevent me from guessing by appearance alone.
“Heavily stream-tainted water; its bad for most bio-forms, and that much worse for those with magical proclivities. You get a blast of energy, but lose all semblance of control in the process. Given that you floated all the way here, I’m guessing you’re either a catalyst or a streamer.”
“Streamer.” I said.
The Cleftan woman nodded. “I had a feeling. Catalysts usually have a static charge.”
“Why are we in prison?” I asked, not really in the mood to discuss the differences in magical talents.
“Because outsiders aren’t supposed to know about Erris.” She said. “Yet the two of you were headed straight for us. We’d like to know why.”
“A friendly water elemental pointed us your way.” I said, rubbing my head. “Apparently one of your reactors is leaking into her river.”
“So we noticed. Not quite as badly as you, however. Speaking of which ...” The Cleftan woman held out a hand. There was a small green pill in the palm of her glove.
“Take it.” She said, no doubt noticing my hesitation. “It’ll clear your head.”
She held out another hand, this one holding a glass of water. Part of me warned against it, but I ultimately decided that it was safe; after all, if they wanted me dead, I’d already given them an excellent opportunity.
I swallowed the pill with a mouthful of purified water. To my great relief, my headache faded almost immediately.
“Thank you.” I said, handing back the glass.
“Not a problem.” She said before bowing her head and moving away from the cell
As the Cleftan woman busied herself at the jail’s single desk, I asked Jenna, “They say anything to you about why we’re here?”
“No, but I’d imagine that he has something to do with him.” Jenna jerked a thumb at the next cell over. Arc was inside, and standing as far back in the corner as he could manage, as though trying to make as much room between us as possible.
Now the headache was back. “What did you tell them?” I asked, fighting an impulse to hurl myself at the bars and grab at the kid.
“Nothing! They just grabbed me!” Arc whimpered.
A clank at the cell door caught my attention. The Cleftan woman had opened it, and was beckoning us outside. “Well, now that we’re sure you aren’t going to float off on us, Meister Thyme would like a word with you.”
“Meister Thyme?” I asked.
“He’s … well, I guess the closest word would be Elder.” She held out Glint, still in its battered sheath. As I strapped it to my side, the Cleftan woman continued, “You up for it? No lingering hallucinations?”
“That depends; is there really a man in a bunny suit standing at your desk?”
The Cleftan woman was silent for a moment before letting out a laugh. “Cute. I gotta say, you’re a lucky one; I’ve seen people stuck with runoff side-effects for weeks after drinking only a few drops of crystallic-tainted water.” As we left the cell, she extended a gloved hand. “I’m Neeko, by the way. Neeko Conikko.”
“Jimmy Sakamota.” I replied, shaking her hand. “And this is Jenna White.”
Jenna bowed her head politely.
“Well then, Jimmy and Jenna,” Neeko said after closing the cell door behind us. “Let’s be on our way.”
We had scarcely reached the door when a loud “Hey!” interrupted us. Arc rushed up to the door of his cell, his eyes wide. “What about me?”
The Cleftan fixed Arc with what seemed to be a glare. “YOU are an entirely separate matter, and will be dealt with when Thyme seems fit. Until then, you will sit in your cell and remain quiet.”
A blue beam shot from the bed, grabbed Arc, and yanked him backwards. A series of straps emerged from the side of the bed and secured Arc in place, one clasping over his mouth as he started to yell.
I’d be lying if I said I was comfortable with this treatment of Arc; despite his recent actions, he’d been a good friend during the mess with the dragon. I didn’t know what prompted his recent behavior, but part of me hoped there was some explanation for it.
Still, he had wrecked my portable cabin, sent an entire town into paranoia, not to mention the time he shot me in the lobby of the Center of Knowledge. Besides, they didn’t seem to be hurting him; just restraining him, and if there was one thing Arc needed, it was restraint. As such, I raised no objection as Neeko led us out of the jail.
As the door slid open, I got my first view of a Cleftan city. The town was situated around what could only be called a giant hole in the continent. The town itself was built into the sides of the hole, with streets and avenues stretching and spiraling downwards. A peek over the nearest railing revealed a mist-engulfed jungle far beneath the town.
What truly caught my eye was the level of technological sophistication present on the streets of Erris. Rimstak is a confusing mess of streets, districts, and machinery, a testament to technology allowed to run wild. Ronisgald, on the other hand, was technology at its sleekest and most efficient. In Erris, however, technology was literally ingrained in everything.
Everything seemed shiny … even the trees were metallic, reminding me strongly of the cleansing trees around Rimstak’s Junkyard. The comparison was apt; every tree, every blade of grass, even every bird perched on a limb were artificial in nature.
Not everything was technological in nature. The streets were paved with cobblestone roads lit by tall iron lamps, a surprising anachronism considering the complexity of the birds that pecked at the cracks of stone for bits of food.
Any doubt as to the source of the surprisingly life-like technology was put to rest as I watched as a small child put the finishing touches on a small feline, which promptly came to life and jumped into the child’s arms. Several times, I saw trees appearing to prune themselves, absorbing old branches only to produce new ones in different locations.
The houses were hard to describe, simply because of the sheer variety in design. One house looked as though it were made of nothing but right triangles that were constantly reconfiguring themselves. Another was covered with spinning gears, evoking memories of my time in Rimstak. Yet another looked as though it had been built from a large amount of small cubes that had been meticulously glued into place. Each house was different and unique, and although a few styles were familiar, no two houses were exactly the same.
Of course, the Cleftans themselves were by far the most interesting thing to see, at least for me. I had never seen so much mismatched clothing on so many different people. Was there a style at work here, or were they just wearing whatever they had available? Whatever the case, I felt strangely exposed in my hakama and keikogi.
Everyone stared as curiously at us as we did at them. Some seemed shocked, others amused. A group of young girls (I assumed they were girls as they were all wearing skirts and/or dresses) giggled and pointed at me. When I met their goggle and glasses covered gazes, they all quickly turned away, giggling more than ever.
Trying to put it out of my mind, I asked Neeko, “So, this Meister Thyme … anything you can tell us about him?”
“Oh, yes. I could jabber your ear off with stories for weeks.”
After a few moments of silence, I asked, “Is there anything we should be aware of? I don’t want to accidentally crash a culture barrier.”
She chuckled, reminding me of Uncle Ann’s hearty laugh. “Thyme’s a good man. As for faux pas, the only thing you have to worry about is your clothing.”
I blushed, picturing how I must look in my mind. “I’m sorry … should I cover up with my spare clothes?”
She laughed again. “No, you’re fine. We know Galdens don’t share our modesty. Still, your friend … Jenna was it? She wears nothing. It might alarm some people, even though she’s an android.”
That hadn’t occurred to me. Mick wore clothes, but Jenna hadn’t been wearing anything when we found her. Of course, if she had been wearing ordinary cloth, it had probably turned to dust long ago. As I looked at her, she blushed self-consciously. “You didn’t seem to notice, so I didn’t say anything.”
I pulled a set of my clothes from my side-pack. I handed Jenna the clothes, saying, “Will these do?”
“They’ll be fine. Thank you, Jimmy.” She started to put them on, but suddenly stopped, blushing. “Could you turn around?”
Blushing myself, I quickly complied. I heard her duck into a nearby alley, followed by the rustle of clothing. After a few moments, she said, “Okay, you can turn back around now.”
It’s surprising the effect a few clothes can have. If I hadn’t known any better, I’d have thought her a normal Galden, her gray skin only an abnormality.
Neeko nodded with approval. “That’ll work; not sure if black’s your color, though. Shall we carry on?”
We still attracted a lot of attention as we walked to Thyme’s house, a three-story home with an immense clock tower. The elaborately-fashioned hands of the clock indicated it was almost noon.
Neeko led us to the door and motioned us forward. “Go on inside; he’s waiting in there, somewhere.”
“Somewhere?” That sounded suspicious. Still, what choice did we have? With a sigh, I clasped the handle of the door and pushed it open.
The inside of the house was as intriguing as the outside. There were clocks everywhere. Some were simple clocks that simply performed their basic function, others were masterpieces of art, depicting such scenes as the Elsewhere Epitimus, or the fall of the mad Emperor Calliban. Some told time with simple hands, some were digital, and a few had holographic displays that seemed to float in front of the clock faces.
I jumped as Neeko closed the door behind us. “Yes, he has quite a collection, doesn’t he?” She toyed with the pendulum of a small clock on a raised table. “Strange obsessions are pretty common around here. I collect cats myself.”
“Porcelain?” I asked.
“Nah, the real cats keep knocking ’em down. I mean, I’m no crazy cat lady, but I’ve got a few. I usually keep them, but if someone asks, I’m willing to give them good homes. We can stop by later, if you’re interested.”
“Hmm. Probably best to wait and see what kind of pet Mick gets.” I said, though the idea of a proper cat had merit. It had been a while since I’d seen one of the usual strays around the Saybaro.
Shaking my head, I looked around the room for a door. It wasn’t easy; pendulums were swinging everywhere, and the walls seemed to be entirely covered with clocks.
Finding the way out of the room was a problem. “There are several doors in here.” Neeko said as she tapped sections of the wall. “Thyme has them rigged up so that a different one is open every day. Unfortunately, he randomizes it every now and then.”
“Because he doesn’t like company?” Jenna asked.
“Because he gets bored, and likes switching things around for no reason. He claims it helps him think.”
Eventually, Jenna found the door next to an old grandfather clock. It swung open at my touch, revealing a long hallway practically lined with more metal clockwork. Spinning cogs and winding springs ran along the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor.
We made our way carefully down the hall, ducking under spinning cogs and stepping over springs and pistons. It was slow going, but eventually we ended up in front of a large door with a single cog fixed dead on the center.
Neeko didn’t make any motions to open it, so I stepped up and gave the knob a turn.
The door swung open with no resistance, allowing us entry. I walked inside and immediately blinked to make sure what I was seeing was real; for a moment, I wondered if I had stepped inside the biggest clock of them all.
There was clockwork everywhere, spinning, humming, and swinging. As I watched it all, I remembered the story of the Silent Tower, an ancient Kindred artifact said to appear at random around the world. Whoever climbed to the top became the master of the tower, which was said to house artifacts of untold power. It was just a rumor, of course, but as a child, I had always dreamed of finding the lost tower and becoming its master.
“Come on.” Neeko told us, starting up the stairs. I stared; the stairs ended abruptly after about six feet. I needn’t have worried; as soon as we were all on the stairs, they started moving up of their own volition, carrying us along for the ride as they slowly circled up and around the central pillar.
“I’ve never seen much clockwork before.” I admitted as we continued to rise. “Did Master Thyme build all of this?”
“He did indeed. Thyme’s been building on this tower for ages. I’m not even sure if he has a set stopping point.” She paused for a moment before letting out a chuckle. “Artists, y’know?”
I thought about the picture of Terra I kept in my pack. “Yeah.”
The stairs brought us up in a spiral until our guide spun a loose gear on the wall as we passed. The stairs abruptly turned in midair and formed a path to a door on the other side of the tower.
Neeko led us through another hallway and through a door led to a large workroom. The floor was littered with discarded pieces of clockwork along with other scraps of metal. Another Cleftan, this one wearing what appeared to be leather clothes and a welder’s mask, was toiling busily at the large workbench on the other side of the room.
“Thyme?” Neeko called out. “I’ve brought our guests.”
Thyme didn’t respond in the slightest. Sighing, Neeko told us, “Wait here a second.”
She stomped over to him, every step rattling the bits of metal on the floor. When she was right behind the oblivious Cleftan, she shouted, “Thyme!”
With a small shriek, Thyme dropped whatever he was working on with a heavy-sounding clunk and held his hands up. “Don’t shoot!”
Shaking her head and probably rolling her eyes, the Cleftan who had escorted us smacked Thyme on his helmet. “Knock that off!”
He turned, a hand on his heaving chest. “Oh, Neeko! You frightened me. Perfect timing. Come here and see!”
We all crowded near as he held up a golden sphere roughly the same size as a softball. Thyme tapped the top of the sphere. Moments later, a set of silvery feathered wings popped out of the sphere’s back and propelled the sphere into the air about five inches.
“Wings of metal, yet light enough to allow it to fly. Is that selanium?” I asked, making Thyme jump.
“Who are you?”
Coughing, I offered my hand. “I’m Sir Jimmy Sakamota of the Royal Guard, and this is Jenna White.”
I blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“This metal?” He said, brushing his gloved finger against the orb’s wing. “It’s a new alloy I invented that I call zelestra. Ultra light, even lighter than selanium. It isn’t quite as hard, but it is much more pliable.”
“Can’t selanium be woven into cloth?” I asked, not sure how much more pliable a substance could be.
“Well, yes, but zelestra can be formed into a semblance of living cells. See how perfectly it flies? With a little more work, I hope to be able to finally provide a way to create cybernetic wings for sentients ... or for whoever wants them, for that matter.”
It did indeed seem natural. With a coat of paint and an artist’s touch, the wings would appear quite like biological ones to the naked eye.
Thyme seemed especially pleased with himself. He patted the sphere on the head and said, “Good boy!”
To my astonishment, a mouth with a perfect set of bright white teeth appeared on the outside of the sphere, grinning at us.
“It’s alive?” I asked, amazed.
Thyme nodded. “Yep. I’d say it’s at least smart as one of Neeko’s cats, maybe smarter. Hard to tell, really. I needed some intelligence in the core of the thing to control the flapping.”
Jenna was fascinated by the flying ball. “This zelestra seems very similar to the material used to create my ‘skin’. It could probably be integrated into a core unit with little effort.”
Thyme turned to look at us. He barely gave me a glance, but when he saw Jenna he flipped up his welding mask to reveal a mess of bandages around a set of black goggles.
“My word! You’re a core unit, aren’t you? An original as well!” Without waiting for a response, he started circling around her, looking her over. She blushed self-consciously.
“Astounding! Fully developed facial features, nice head of hair, developed musculature on the limbs, exposed joints … you’re past your fourth evolution, am I right?”
She nodded, looking surprised. “Indeed I am. How did you come to be so familiar with core unit evolution?”
Neeko coughed. “Thyme, you’re embarrassing her.”
He reluctantly tore his gaze away from Jenna. “Oh! My apologies. We do have business to discuss. Please, have a seat.”