It was 0300, but it might as well have been 1900, or 0700. The mist was the same colour, blocking out light and darkness in equal measure, whatever window you chose.
The Ugloo was all windows, really. It was made of high-grade
reinforced glass, and you could see out of any part of it. Or not see, as the case may be; like now. Further inside, the LiveSpace was contained within four walls that looked like a black box to the - strictly hypothetical - outside observer.
Although Andromeda had spent most of her life in this Managed
Zone and approximately 29 years 287 days of that had been inside Ugloos, the difference between darkness and light troubled her. She had raised it tentatively with Soniya, one time when the air quality had gasped its way up to double digits and they had been allowed a brief sojourn on the plain.
"Don't you feel...strange, being awake in the dark?" she had asked.
"But it isn't dark." Soniya had replied, glancing upwards. "The lights are working just fine."
Since Soniya had a way of sounding confused that made her
questioner into the stupid one, Andromeda had dropped it. Her next question would have been whether Soniya, too, could squint a little, concentrate, and find some little pinprick of a different light, high up in the darkness: a whiter, fuzzier looking thing. But she didn't ask.
By careful observation she had noted that the dark hours
coincided with the smaller numbers on the clock. If she didn't emerge from the LiveSpace until 0800 or so, it would already be light; sometimes it was much earlier than that. She had raised this with her doctor. He looked disapproving.
"What does it matter?" he chided.
"I suppose it doesn't." Andromeda had replied, because she knew that was the right answer. She had only wanted to know why the outside was dark sometimes and light others; but she didn't ask. There was generally a limit of one of her peculiar questions per two or three conversations. Otherwise, people started sighing at her.
Andromeda realised that she had been staring into the fog for
some time. It was unlikely that anything would appear. Although it was pointless, she glanced at the monitor by the door of the LiveSpace.
0347 20C AQ: 3 CYCLES SINCE AQ <10: 223 T'MO EXPECT: 3
Sometimes an urge to deface the monitor rose up inside her. She
could smash something into its gloating screen. Or make her own declarations. She knew just as much as it did. One day she would get down on the floor beneath it and write:
T'MO EXPECT: 3
NXT T'MO EXPECT: 3
T'MO AFTER NEXT EXPECT: 3
She got straight into bed and closed her eyes.
She didn’t get up until after her coffee in the best of circumstances. Even after she had drained her cup, she was too languid to pull herself up. Instead, she amused herself with the tautologous rubbish spouted by Lena, her Amenable Sociable Simulated Interlocutor System and Temperator.
“Lena, what is a bed?”
“A bed is a place where one sleeps.”
“Lena, where should I sleep?”
“One sleeps in a bed.”
“Lena, what is coffee?”
“Coffee is a hot brown drink, sometimes served chilled.”
Andromeda snorted and used the momentum to clamber out of bed. She pressed the button for another coffee. After tidying the LiveSpace, she returned to the Observation Deck with a pile of sewing.
As predicted, the monitor said “AQ: 3”.
The mist had lifted, though, and it was possible to see a little way
out. In between adding new buttons to a slightly threadbare cardigan, Andromeda looked up. She saw nothing but the occasional DDrone gliding noiselessly by. She herself was due to receive one at 1500. It would drop in through a hatch in the
topmost panel that opened only for deliveries.
A darting movement caught her eye. It was something small; too small and haphazard in its movement to be a drone. She narrowed her eyes at it. It made a little thunk as it landed on the glass. What was it? It could be a novel spytrap, perhaps sent by that odd man who had looked at her on the Plain. It was peculiar that some men preferred to look at women than immerse themselves in VirtuPorn like most of them, but Andromeda had heard that it happened sometimes.
She dismissed the spytrap theory quickly, because the odd man had not seemed intelligent enough to build spytraps, which were strictly forbidden as well as difficult to create.
The thing was still moving. It was fluffy and plump-looking; if not for its size and location, Andromeda would have supposed it was alive. It had that aimless way about it that only living creatures can; it also had legs, which DDrones had not bothered with since she was little. Its fluff was red and dusty. She reached out and tapped the glass; the thing flew off rapidly. What could be programmed to be so skittish?
For the first time in many years, Andromeda missed her mother. She knew that her mother would have known the name of this thing; she had often known strange things. She had given peculiar answers.
She did not hold out much hope that Lena would know, but she asked.
“Lena, what is an orange thing that flies?”
“DDrone Mk 146, informally decommissioned 2152 November, orange in colour. This model may still be seen occasionally, ferrying low-risk, low-urgency supplies, e.g.-”
It was possible and generally preferred to be polite to the ASSIST, but not mandatory. Andromeda usually did not bother. She had heard strange tales of people who got too close to their ASSISTs. The systems were supposed to be of ordinary intelligence, to mimic human interaction and discourage disordered information acquisition, but Lena seemed to be programmed to be borderline simple.
The thing couldn’t be a drone; it was far too small.
“Lena, what is approx. 3cm long, orange, round, has six legs and is capable of flight?”
“Negative. ASSIST Mk 401 not programmed for riddles. For word game and tongue twister access please consider upgrade to OS 403.2.”
Andromeda made a face and went back to the deck. She walked around it, glaring carefully at each panel. There were no more of the things.
The monitor bleeped an announcement. “AQ: 4.”
“Lena, what living creatures can fly?”
“No living creature is capable of ariel self-propulsion.”
“Lena, were there any creatures that could fly in the past?”
“Error warning. Unnecessary archival information access may cause ASSIST Mk 401 to malfunction. For stronger recall facility, kindly consult supervising body.”
“Lena, override error warning. Were there living creatures that could fly in the past?”
Mosquitoes. Birds. Bats. Bluebottles. Greenbottles. Milk bottles.” There was a whirring sound. “Error recall. Milk bottles delete. Milk bottles could not fly. Recommence after greenbottles. – Gnats. Certain beetles. Potentially mythical creatures: Angels. Fairies. Butterflies. Bees. End of list.”
“Lena, what is a bat?”
“Nocturnal, carnivorous mammal. Weight between 2g and 1kg depending on category.”
“Lena, how many legs did bats have?”
“2 legs, 2 wings.”
Andromeda sighed. It was going to be a while. She went for a coffee.
Presently, she and Lena settled into a rhythm. The questions were: legs, size, colour. They had a few false starts, but most creatures were dismissed out of hand. By the time she reached the bottom of her cup, they were struggling with butterflies. They had six legs, 3cm long was possible, orange was possible, but Lena couldn’t seem to grasp the word ‘fluff’.
“Lena, did butterflies have…fur?”
“Lena, were butterflies round?”
“Butterflies were slender with a body ratio of approx. 5:1 length: width.”
Andromeda decided to press on. Bees: six legs, right size, potentially orange. And the last item on the list. Her nails dug into her palms.
“Lena, were bees fat?”
“Body shape of bees was generally robust.”
“Lena, were bees smooth?”
“Negative. Bees were covered in soft fibres used to gather pollen.”
Andromeda gasped. It was a bee.
“Bee.” She said aloud. “Beeee.” Elongating the vowel.
The word sang in her head.
She walked round and round the Observation Deck; five times, ten times, twenty times. Just once more. Suddenly she was overwhelmed by exhaustion. There was a very real possibility that she would never see the bee again. If it landed on a different Ugloo every T’MO, she would be waiting years. She went to bed.
Time passed. The AQ improved, reaching 7 one mistless day. Then it plunged again. Andromeda took to wearing a pair of broken earphones most of the time, to block out the bleeps of the monitor. She would not engage with its cruelty. Instead, she watched and waited for the return of the bee.
Once, during a light time, the monitor set up a relentless bleep that burst through her attempted muffler. She thought it was her imagination, like last time. It continued.
“Lena, is that alert my imagination?”
“AQ:11. 3 missed calls. Soniya 1026, Soniya 1031, Soniya 1033.”
The Ugloo’s longest panel slid up. Andromeda ran.
Almost the whole population had already reached the Plain. Soniya stood anxiously on their usual patch, underneath tree specimen 13. She had lost weight. A jealous family hovered nearby. They embraced and lay down. Andromeda could not believe that Soniya did not feel differently about making it to the Plain in a light time. She considered asking, but Soniya had apparently prepared her own peculiar question earlier.
“Do you ever regret being a Solitary?”
Andromeda turned the thought over in her mind, just as an infant member of the jealous family, now settled two or three metres from them, smacked another and they both burst into tears.
“No.” she replied, decisively. “Family looks awful.”
Soniya stared moodily ahead. “No. Me neither. Exactly.”
The announcement came at about 1740; AQ had slipped to 9. All members of the community must return to their Ugloos within the hour. She walked Soniya back to her Ugloo.
After leaving her, she realised her own peculiar question should have been: “Can friends be a family?” She would ask next time. If Soniya had started with her own peculiar questions, Andromeda’s allowance had surely grown.
She reached her residence with five minutes left of the hour, so she took a stroll around its exterior. It was odd to look out instead of in. A strange noise, like the urgent whizz made by Lena during a minor malfunction, reached her ears. Some structural fault with the Ugloo; perhaps a repair was required. She took note of the panel number.
The exit clicked shut behind her. It would not reopen again until AQ: 10. The usual despair began to permeate the air almost instantly.
“Lena, photograph panel 17a internal and external views.”
The snapshots appeared immediately.
“Lena, scan for panel flaws.”
“Internal clear. External: hole present in lower right join. Engineer call?”
“Lena, negative. Zoom into fault.”
There was a hole: it looked as if it had been dug.
“Lena, closer zoom.”
Something was sticking out of the hole.
“Lena, video footage of flaw.”
The screen was filled with the hole, many times magnified. It was a strange thing. She couldn’t imagine what had made this space in her cell walls.
“Lena, scan for image matches.”
Something flickered on the screen. Andromeda stared. The hole was filled, and then reappeared. A face appeared.
“Lena, external view of panel 17a lower right quadrant.”
A new image appeared.
“Lena, what is that?!”
“New image scan commencing.”
Andromeda stared at the thing. She fancied that the hole was getting bigger in front of her eyes.
“Archived image found. Osmia bicornis. Red mason bee.”
“Lena, what is it doing?”
“Probable activity: nest building. Mason bees nest in plant stems, holes and building cavities. In extreme cases can cause structural damage. Engineer call?”
Andromeda smiled. The bee was digging her out.
“Engineer call strongly advised.”
“Lena, no engineer call.”