A Story about a Mechanical Egg, in Three Parts

Part 1:
Cubi met Perni

Cubi is asleep when the speaking tube begins to hoot. He staggers out of bed, casting the blanket aside and banging his shin against a table leg. He slaps angrily at the light switch, but the fluorescent tube just flickers endlessly and, as he lifts the speaking tube from its hook, he switches it off again.

An unfamiliar voice rises from the mouth of the speaking tube. In this pitch darkness, it feels like the woman speaking could almost be in the room. “You have to come over here right now! It‘s amazing! I can’t believe I did it!”

“What?” he asks groggily. “Over where? Who is this?”

“It’s me, Cubi.”

“You can’t be Cubi. I’m Cubi.”

A frustrated sigh floats up from the speaking tube. “I know that. I’m saying: Cubi, it’s me: Perni.”

Cubi breathes a sigh of relief as the prospect of a female doppelganger is shattered. “Perni. You sound different. I didn’t recognise your voice.”

“It must be because I’m smiling so much.”

“Smiling? What’s happened?”

“Come over here and see.”

“Should I bring a doctor?”

“No, and you can leave your sense of humour behind as well. Oh, you’re going to love this! Get over here as soon as you can.” And with a click, she disconnects.


When Cubi met Perni, it was friendship at first sight.

There was nothing about that morning that marked it out as different. No hint that by the end of the day he would have made the best friend he would ever know. He rolled out of bed at eight, forced a breakfast of processed oats down his throat and took the travelling tube to the Nematode Quarter.

He walked lazily down to his usual spot, meandering down narrow paths that themselves meandered between the higgledy houses - houses whose red bricks were now more a faded khaki. Daisies and weeds poked out through broken concrete that crunched occasionally underfoot, and dense foliage curled over onto the path from either side. The air was cool and humid, tinged with the smell of nematode pheromones, a smell not unlike the seaside.

He carried a folded table and chair under one arm and a small toolkit under the other. When he reached his usual spot he set up the table and chair, and sat with his toolkit open between his feet.

Cubi’s usual spot was at the top of Argon Hill. Nice not only for being a busy thoroughfare for the nematode residents, but also for the gorgeous view it afforded of the rest of the city. The glass fronted skyscrapers of the Human Quarter in the misty distance, looking not nearly as huge as they really were, competed for attention with the earthy spires of the Insect Quarter, the black mineral smokers of Sludgetown and the helium buoyed balloon-plant habitats of Airphibian immigrants.

As Greater Sun rose higher into the air, shining blue rays through the green haze of pollution, the nematodes began to slither out of the baking soil. They emerged like toothpaste squeezed from a tube and then lay across the concrete paths, thousands of them, tying up the whole district like fat, living ropes. Basking their two-metre long, transparent, wormlike bodies in the sun, algal symbiotes photosynthesising busily. A few of those that emerged at the top of Argon Hill brought their widgets with them, and began to lazily coil and thrust towards Cubi’s table, pushing the ovoid machines along the ground with their noses.

Cubi pulled a small object like a perfume bottle from his toolkit and set it on the ground in front of his table. He pressed a button and it began to periodically spray nematode pheromones into the air. The message they carried was simple, ‘Widgets realigned, two hundred rupees’, but Cubi’s never needed to sell himself much. He’s practically famous. Among the nematodes, that is.

From the top of Argon Hill, he could see Perni coming from quite a way away, although he didn’t yet know who she was, of course. Realigning a widget is complicated business - especially when your species isn’t capable of understanding what they actually do - and Cubi has always found that frequent breaks are necessary for his best workmanship. He leans back every so often and looks at the city, composing poetic sentences to describe it and then either rejecting or forgetting them. His customers certainly don’t mind, as they sunbathe all day long, tangled up with one another, lazily rubbing against their widgets’ clicker pods.

He noticed Perni when she was at the end of Xenon Avenue, watched her follow the twisting route of Nitrogen Lane, smiled at the way she took such care stepping over the lethargically squirming nematodes that littered her path.

She was tall and bony, moving much more gracefully than the ungainly angles of her figure suggested she should be able to. She wore dark jeans and a grubby raincoat, similar to Cubi’s attire, and very sensible clothing for the Nematode Quarter. Was she a tourist? Well-informed enough to dress well, but ignorant enough to come while Greater Sun was in the sky. It was possible.

As she clambered up Argon Hill, in places crawling on all fours to avoid stepping on the locals, it was clear that they were both aware of one another, and that she was going to come and talk to him.

“Hi,” she said, when she finally stood by his table, dusting bits of concrete and faded brick from her jeans. “You’re the human who realigns nematode widgets.”

“And you are…?”

“I’m just curious. I heard about you and thought it sounded cool.”

Cubi shrugged.

“I’m Perni, by the way,” she said, looking down at the widget in front of Cubi, its western panel unscrewed and various tools sticking out of it.

Cubi nodded and returned to pushing and twisting at the tools. “I’m Cubiform Judge. Call me Cubi.”

“Right. So…” She looked down at the widget again. “Do you understand how it works?”

Cubi stopped and looked up at her. “You’re a businesswoman,” he said disappointedly. “Look, I’m not interested in going into business. And even if I was, I don’t understand how they work, what they do or how they’re made. I just realign them. Two hundred rupees. If you have a widget you want realigned, I can help you. Otherwise…”

“I’m not trying to sell or buy anything.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“I’m just curious,” she repeated. “How can you realign them, if you don’t know the first thing about them?”

“That’s not true. I do know something about them.”

Her eyes widened. “What?”

“I know how to realign them.”

She laughed, took a step back, almost tripped over the nematode behind her, found her balance again, laughed with embarrassment. Cubi laughed too.

“Here, sit on this patch of grass,” he said. “You really shouldn’t try and go anywhere in the Nematode Quarter while Greater Sun is in the sky. It’s impossible. Even two steps backwards is impossible, as you just found out.”

Perni sat down, folding her gawky limbs as she did so. “Oh! I get it now. I was told that you were here when Greater Sun was up, and it was because… So I should have come earlier?”


She bit her lower lip and ran her fingers through her short black hair. “I’ll remember that now.”

“Told by who, by the way? Where did you hear about me?”

“This guy I met in a pub who’s working on nematode pheromone translators. I’m an inventor. I’m interested in anything like that. Anything unexplained or difficult. He told me about you. He said you’re the only human who realigns widgets, and you can do it better than anyone else in the city - even any of the nematodes. I thought it was worth a look, for inspiration.”

Cubi wiggled a screwdriver in the widget for a moment and then stopped. He handed it to Perni. “Invent me some better tools for realigning widgets, and maybe we can do business.”

“This is a screwdriver,” she said, as if she thought he expected it to be strange to her.

“Yes. And it’s hard to use. All the nematode tools are designed to work with widgets, but they’re also designed for creatures with no hands. I’m sure someone can do better than that. But I’m the only person in the city who needs these things. There’s not much of a market for them. I’ve thought about getting something custom made, but, it just seemed a lot of bother. Then you landed in my lap. So to speak.”

“Sounds slightly interesting.”

“Only slightly?”

“What would be more interesting,” she began in a tone of voice that he would go on to become very familiar with, “would be making a machine to do all the realigning for you.”

“I don’t think you could.”

She leant forward and looked at him intently. “Why not?”

“I don’t think it’s something that you can do mechanically. It’s not about numbers and procedures, its about examination and exploration, sometimes even guesswork. If you made a machine that could do all that it, it wouldn’t be a machine. It’d be, I don’t know, some kind of mechanical person. An autonomous machine. An auto-person, say.”

Cubi likes to imagine that he created a brand new phrase in that moment, that will ‘catch on’ sooner or later. In his more honest moments, he will admit, however, that he and Perni are the only people he has ever heard use it.

“Well, I tell you what: I’ll make the auto-person, and you teach it to realign widgets.”

“And put myself out of a job? No thanks.”

“You’d have a job. Chief trainer of widget realigning auto-people. That’s a grand job. You’d win friends and influence people with a title like that.”

Cubi laughed and turned back to the widget on his table. Greater Sun was high in the sky. He couldn’t afford to waste any more time. “Sorry. I like my work just fine as it is. If you want, make an auto-person anyway, and give me a percentage for coming up with the idea.”

Perni looked extremely thoughtful for a moment and then grinned. It was the only time Cubi ever saw her smile so boldly and openly. Her face seemed to open up and show him the sincerity of her idealism, for just the briefest moment. “You know what,” she said. “I think I will.”


Perni takes the longest time to answer the speaking tube.

“Hello,” she sings, “I hope you’re having a wonderful day too, whoever you are!”

“Do you know what time it is?” Cubi asks irritably. “Do I really have to come over now?”

He can hear the sound of something rattling. He imagines her fumbling with her workshop’s perpetually closed blinds. Eventually she says, “Is it night time?”

“Yes Perni, it’s night time.”

“Oh. Well I suppose you can come in the morning then. If you want.”

Cubi sighs. “I’m already dressed. I’ll come right over.”

“Great!” she laughs. “Hurry up!”

To be continued...

Part two can be found here.

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