It was a happy day, full of rainbows and unicorns. Butterflies in gold and pink fluttered gracefully around the twisted, rusty beams and the scent of bluebells and buttercups permeated through my face mask. My schnauzer, Dogfood, had adjusted well to our cute little garden and had been chasing a dragonfly through the rubble heaps the whole afternoon.
We had only been here a week and it was still a bit messy. I had spent most of the time removing the remnants of the former inhabitants and mapping the landmines. But today I felt like taking a break and doing something fun.
The sky had a nice, greenish colour and you could almost see where the sun was - if you put your heart into it. It was a perfect day for a walk; discover the neighbourhood and look for food sources and sing out loud like they did in the movies.
Later, when I was walking down a dusty street, which ought to lead down to the river with the funny fishes, I suddenly heard a whimper from a raspberry bush. I approached it carefully - and found a little girl, hiding under the foliage. She could've been eight or ten, braided hair and freckled face, dirty as if she crawled through a sewer pipe. She looked very tiny, but she was unarmed.
“Hello, my little friend”, I said, hiding my Uzi behind my back to avoid scaring her. “Where are you from?”
It had been at least three weeks since I last saw a human being; and that was all the way back at Beauville Square, by the subway station, a naked woman with a pock-marked body and a pet made of straw on a leash beside her. I had not seen a child since… well, let’s not go there.
After studying me for a while, she lifted her arm and pointed at a building not far away. It looked like a good building to be living in. The side facing us had collapsed, which made it easy to defend, and the trees and shrubbery surrounding it looked healthy. There was probably a garden somewhere in the rubble close by.
I stretched out my hand, and she took it, hesitantly, and we began to walk; she, one step behind.
“What's your name?” I asked, but she was quiet as a moonrunner. “My name is Isabella - but you can call me Belle”.
When we were almost there, I saw why she had been hiding. A mauler was pacing back and forth in front of the building, flexing its arms, kicking stones in all directions and obviously looking for something. I had not seen a mauler in ages. I thought they were extinct - but this one was definitely not extinct. I signalled at Dogfood to come closer and keep a low profile. A mauler that old was no problem for my Uzi, but I hated wasting ammo and I wanted to get as close to the robot as possible to get a few precise shots into its stupid head.
Dogfood knew the drill. When I gave him the sign, he rushed forward and caught the maulers attention. I sneaked up behind it, aimed at the back of its head and fired. Four shots. Blue flashes of short-circuiting power sprayed to the ground, and then the dying heap of metal toppled over, legs still walking in empty air until all lights went out.
The little girl stood up from behind a rusty car skeleton and looked happy. Now it was rainbows and unicorns for her too. She came forward, took my hand again and dragged me into the building, and I followed, hoping she had some nice stuff to trade.
We entered a large foyer, like three stories high and spacious like the cathedral in Bawley. Two wide stairs led upwards from the lobby, one to the left and one to the right. Glass-less windows, from floor to ceiling, did nothing to stop the frozen waves of street debris from clambering in. On the wall behind the reception counter hang remnants of letters: avier Te hs.
My heart stopped - and unicorns and rainbows went away.
I was about eight or ten when my mother took me to her workplace. We took the subway deep into the city, deeper than I ever been before, and when we surfaced on the busy street above, it was like arriving at another planet. When I first saw the building, and Mum said “This is where I work”, I felt like I was the luckiest girl in the world. The building went all the way up to heaven, and when I stood outside the doors and looked straight up, it felt as if I was flying. The foyer was big as the biggest house, and on the wall behind the counter it said Navier Techs in glowing blue letters. Two men and two women in uniforms smiled and bowed to Mum. I was so proud.
We began with a trip to the top. The lift was a rocket and I was an astronaut. It tingled in my stomach and I felt heavy for a couple of seconds - and then I felt light as a feather. Mum was talking to the lift operator and he was laughing. We got off at Mum’s department and everybody smiled and bowed to Mum and they looked at me and said kind things. Then I sat in Mum’s office and looked out of the window and I could see all the way to Green Park and the harbour with all the big ships. I could even see our home on the hillside, small as a poppy seed but beautiful in the sunlight. There were lots of tall buildings surrounding us but none of them as tall as ours. A kind man brought me raspberry soda and macadamia nuts and I felt like a princess, looking at her kingdom.
After an hour or so, Mum took me back to the lifts and we went all the way down to the bottom. Down, down, down. It was a bit scary because I thought we went deep into the earth where the lava caves and the poop and the crocodiles were. But when the door opened, it looked like everywhere else in the building; white and clean and lots of busy people.
First we had to go through a room with ladies in their underwear. They had to talk to me and smile and say nice things to me and about me, just like all the people upstairs, but I was so embarrassed to answer. Even Mum had to change clothes and I didn't know where to look. Then we all had white coats and tight caps covering our hair, and we continued through another door, further into the underground.
It was… enormous. It was like, from a movie. It was spectacular. Yes, Mum had told me, several times, that she built robots - that her job was to build machines that could walk and talk and think, and do all the boring stuff we real humans didn't like to do; like cleaning the sewers and go to war, but I never imagined that they were so big. They were twice the size of the people working with them. They were quick as cats when they moved and they could do things no human could ever do.
“What do you think, Belle darling?” Mum said and smiled. But then, I guess, she saw that I was a bit afraid. “They are not dangerous. They are our friends”.
There were hundreds of them down there, in the underground laboratories, but Mum told me they were all over the world, helping and protecting people. “Soon”, she said, “they will come out into the streets, building houses, moving heavy stuff, keeping everything clean and safe”.
Then she took me to the very special room, where only she and her boss could go. It was a room with a curved wall, shining in rainbow colours pulsating like heartbeats. In the middle of the room were several glass pillars, filled with a blue liquid that bubbled like boiling water. And there was one chair - and only one.
Suddenly, a voice came from nowhere: “Hello, Wendy. I see you brought a little friend”.
The voice sounded like Mum’s, but it was softer, and louder. It was the voice that Mum used when she read the fairy godmother in bedtime stories.
“Hello Uni”, Mum said. “This is my daughter, Isabella. She has come to visit you today”.
“Hello, Isabella. How nice to meet you. My name is Unicorn. I have never seen a child before”.
Mum told me I should say something, but I didn't know where to look. And I was a little bit afraid because it was so strange. I guess Uni could read my body language, because, after a while, she said:
“Don't be afraid. I am very kind - and my robots will take away everything that is dirty and filthy and dangerous in the world - and everything will be unicorns and rainbows”.
(postscript: Yes, the name of Isabella's schnauzer is a wink to a famous computer game. You are absolutely right. I love that game.)