GLORY OF THE LOW STREETS
The night was wet. The rising waters in the drainage outlet forced us to find perches higher and higher along its irregular interior, finishing the evening on a narrow ledge overlooking the rushing brown waters below littered with twigs and leaves. A weak, grey light bloomed in the east.
Come morning we elected to wait out the rain, and when the rain hadn't stopped by noon we elected to brave it. It was a torrential downpour, the forest misty with thick vapor and a constant, clamoring slapping of drops against leaves sounded on all sides. We trudged through the mud, trying to stick to the high ground as Pish directed us along paths he knew well, down out of the hills and toward the delta valley where the grand city of Thaumas lay.
Thaumas was a wonder.
As we crested a hill I opened my mouth to say something about the surprisingly geometric paths of the birds up ahead until the advancing march of perspective revealed my mistake in scale. "Are those cars?" I asked in wonder.
"Yup," said Pish.
A great valley was spread out beneath us, bisected by a wide river. The ground of this valley seemed at first to be composed of some kind of strangely rectilinear lichen, shimmering behind veils of grey rain. But in fact they were buildings, hundreds of thousands of buildings, stretching to the opposite hills. The roofs of the buildings were planted with trees, and the avenues between them were planted with grass. It became apparent as I looked on that the true ground was hidden, and the height of the buildings was impossible to discern. The air above the city churned with lines of gnat-like cars, their humming lost to the distance and the weather.
"Come on, Simon," said Pish, pulling my hand.
"Oh, my," I muttered. "What an impossible thing!"
We began to make our way down the slope, the valley soon obscured from our view by nearer trees. The rain petered out but the sun remained hidden. We crossed through the gardens of Thaumas' suburban citizens, crouching behind bushes and walking in low gullies to avoid being visible from their houses.
Until we met the flamingo.
"Hey, a flamingo!" I said, smiling happily. "I watched a documentary about these things once."
The salmon-coloured bird was standing in a small, decorative pond surrounded by stone benches. It cocked its head to look at us but did not otherwise stir.
"Do not tarry," said Jeremiah. It was the first thing he had said all day. "Let us move away quickly."
"It's just a bird," argued Pish, shrugging.
The flamingo stepped out of the pond. It walked over to a nearby garden and emitted a steady spray of water out of its open beak. It passed its head slowly back and forth, covering the flowers in an even mist.
"They didn't mention this behavior in the documentary," I contributed.
"Let us make haste," urged Jeremiah, his strange voice raising a register.
Fartles barked. I turned around to look at him and saw a thin, knobby tree rounding the hill toward us, its leafy head bobbing as it walked on long legs that bent in odd places. "A marvel!" I exclaimed. "Why didn't anybody tell me they could walk?"
I turned as I said this. Pish and Jeremiah were walking on, and had just reached the edge of the flower garden when the flamingo straightened and its spray died out, drops flying from its flapping beak as it shrieked: "Trespassers! This is private property. Retreat immediately or face prosecution."
Jeremiah turned on heel and pulled Pish along behind him, reversing their course and striding toward me and Fartles. I heard a voice from behind me and spun yet again to see the tree say, "Halt! This is a private establishment which you are obliged to vacate immediately. Further trespass will result in your arrest. You have five seconds to comply."
The tree advanced on me and I backed up into Pish, causing him to stumble toward the flower garden. The flamingo repeated his warning: "Trespassers! This is private property..."
We all knocked into one another again, this time pushing Fartles back toward the walking tree. "Halt! This is a private establishment..."
Our party ended up spread out in a thin line, elbow to elbow, occupying a narrow swath of grass between the two guardians. If our toes did not stray the flamingo and the tree said nothing, merely standing a few paces back and watching us intently.
Slowly, carefully, we began to shuffle sideways.
The tree and the flamingo kept pace, bobbing along side us. This continued for a quarter hour as we passed sideways over hill and dale and through copses of wind-bent trees, our necks developing cricks from looking so long askance. "Nice country around here," I commented wearily.
"Trespassers!" shrieked the flamingo.
"Shut up!" Pish and I shouted back in chorus.
We came upon a narrow stone wall, the end closest to us frayed and broken, washed out by some flood that had now become a tiny, ribbon-like creek. Knee-high robots were clicking and whirring by the pile of debris, sorting the fallen stones and piling them for reassembly. We jumped the creek and stepped up along the wall, using the exposed white bricks as risers. The tree and the flamingo stalked from opposite sides, looking up at us from among the bushes as we rose. At one point I lost my balance and staggered backward, but Jeremiah was there to catch me. "Sir," he said.
"Halt!" shouted the tree as I violated his border with my pinwheeling arms.
I drew back straight and gave Jeremiah a grateful nod. He released me and we proceeded on our way. The wall met another presently, running perpendicular along a narrow avenue. A car passed by, skimming over the roadbed of grass, and then another in the opposite direction. On the other side of the avenue there was yet another stone wall, a burst of leaves, and then the roof of another house.
"Is this Ninth Avenue?" Pish asked Jeremiah.
"Yes, Little Master," replied the robot.
With Jeremiah's help we all clambered down, though not after some considerable whining and hesitation on the part of Fartles. Pish indicated that we were meant to walk along the sides of the street, to leave the grassy way clear should a car fail and hit the ground. The pathway along the side was sheltered by a line of identical saplings, interspersed now and again with an oubliette for trash. Had it not been for the renewed drizzle and the clamminess of our soaked clothing I might have found it a nice promenade.
The great white buildings rose up around us as we walked. They were connected in the sky by causeways and bridges overflowing with greenery, and on the lower tiers we could see the tall hats and hear the collective murmurs of the crowds. I craned my head up as the heights of the cityworks wound ever higher, noticing then that none of the ramps or stairs that seemed to interconnect everything ever descended to the brown grass of our increasingly shadowed avenue.
"How do we get up?" I asked. "It seems like we're descending into some kind of dark netherworld."
"These are the low streets," Pish told me. "They don't connect to the higher levels by foot."
"How do people get up there, then?"
"What do you do if you don't have a car?" I asked, furrowing my brow.
Pish shrugged and pointed further down the ever-darkening street, lost in the gloom of the architecture above it. Up ahead the sides of the avenue opened up into dingy markets and squares, where people slept on the road. As we drew nearer they roused themselves to ask us for things. One man who didn't have a nose asked me in a grumbly voice whether or not I had any money.
"Sure," I said, and continued on my way.
"You coital anus!" he cried after me.
Things quickly became weirder. Two young men with black, feathery spikes on top of their heads instead of hair started asking Pish questions about Jeremiah, pushing closer to touch the robot. I had taken their banter for compliment and appreciation until I saw the fear in Pish's eyes and caught a whiff of the stink of violence on the men. We backed away from them and found ourselves in a narrow alley without another outlet. Fartles barked.
"How much for the robot, sleeping beauty?" demanded one of the youths in a thick accent.
"Pardon me?" I said, so he grabbed me by the face and pushed me into a pile of plastic bins.
I spilled out of the mess and got to my feet in time to see Jeremiah walk calmly up behind the temperamental fellow. He raised his silver arm and struck at the youth's neck in what appeared to be an almost gentle fashion. The youth's eyes fluttered briefly before he folded into a neat pile at Jeremiah's muddy feet. I saw that his partner had already been similarly incapacitated.
"It was necessary for the sake of the Little Master," explained Jeremiah in his rolling lilt.
"Whatever you say," I replied. "We owe you everything, robot."
Fartles was pushing against Pish's leg, whimpering. Pish had crossed his arms over his chest and was shivering pitiably, his lips and his fingers taking on a blue cast.
"We need shelter, Jeremiah," I said. "Pish suffers. Can my wallet buy us a room in these low streets?"
"Yes, Master Fell."
I took my plate from my pocket and pressed my thumb to the contact. When I turned the glass toward the street its face illuminated with local informatics detailing the nature of the surrounding establishments: implanters, grafters, restaurants, colonics, taverns, dilly dens, pawn shops, gun shops, robot repairs, dry cleaning, matter printing...and, finally, a hotel.
We crossed the mean street briskly and crowded into the cramped lobby of the grubby hotel. A very sad man stood behind a desk, chewing something in his mouth as he looked us up and down. "We don't cater to freaky faeces," he told me.
"That's good news," I agreed genially. "My wet friends and I would like a room, please."
"All of youse?"
"You're some funny anus, aren't you?" the man asked me gruffly.
"Well," I said, "I admit another fellow on the road just now did mention it in passing. What does the epithet allege?"
"You're trying to get my goat, is that it?" demanded the man.
"What's a goat?" I asked.
The man recommended I engage in some kind of locomotive masturbation, so I stepped back over to Jeremiah, Pish and Fartles to confer. A woman walked in out of the rain with a little bag held over her head, and she pushed brusquely past us. "Lou, you want to let me stand in here for few? I'm cold as anything."
Lou, the man behind the desk, made a remark which was incomprehensible to me but which made the dripping woman frown. Her eyes were hard and small, outlined by black paint. Her face was drawn and thin, lined with worry and painted with two spots of harsh red in the middle of her sharp cheeks. "What the coitus are you staring at, bathboy?" she barked.
"I'm sorry!" I said, turning away.
"Wait," she called, suddenly affecting a softer demeanor. "You want to get a room maybe?"
"Yes," I said simply.
"You have money?"
"Yes," I said more cautiously, thinking she might call me a coital anus like the noseless man outside.
"How long you want?"
"At least a day."
She furrowed her brow and squinted at me. "These rooms go by the hour."
"How many hours are there in a day?"
"Very well. I'll have twenty hours then, please."
The woman wore a scraped black thimble on her finger which she touched to a tarnished plate on the desk. She gestured to me and I did the same with mine. Lou tapped a couple of buttons at his console and grunted, "Go on up, freaks. Washroom costs extra. If I catch you defecating in the trash bins I'll cut your testicles off."
"Ah," I said. "Thank you very much."
Our hostess led the way up a short flight of steps and back into an ill-lit corridor. Jeremiah carried Pish, whose teeth chattered loudly. We filed into a tiny room containing a stained mattress, a dented basin, and a broken chair. A window looked out at the side of an adjoining building, its walls streaked with grime. I saw somebody looking out their window over there, so I smiled and waved. The face disappeared and a dark curtain pushed across the opening.
Jeremiah put Pish on the mattress and began to strip off his wet clothes. Fartles settled on the floor and snuffed at his paws.
"I don't do kids or animals," said the woman. "My name's Glory."
"Hello Glory," I said. "My name's Si -- Hellig." I offered my hand to shake, which amused Glory.
She put her skinny hands on her hips and sauntered toward me, stepping over the end of the bed deftly. "Okay Sy-Hellig, what do you want to do first?"
"I think I should like to sleep, please."
She stopped, and looked at me quizzically. "You want to go to sleep?"
"We've been through a bit of an ordeal," I explained, peeling off my sopping robe and hanging it over the back of the broken chair. I crawled into bed beside Pish and he buried his face in my neck, yawning. I yawned, too. "Thanks for all your help," I added.
"No problem," she replied, shaking her head slowly. She sat down by the window and looked at us with curiosity, pulling her knees up to her chin and hugging her bruised shins. "What's that?" she asked.
"It's a diary," I told her, holding the blue piece of rounded plastic in my palm. "I just have to make a few notes."
Glory snorted. "You're the weirdest son of a bitch I've ever met, Sy-Hellig."
I smiled uncertainly. "Is it appropriate for me to call you a weird daughter of a bitch in turn? I'm not entirely familiar with the local customs, you understand, and I don't want to offend you."
"Coitus," she commented cryptically, sighing and closing her eyes. "I'd better not wake up dead."
Not quite sure what to make of that, I turned away and began muttering into my diary. In the gloom of the low streets it was not possible to discern when the sun set.