A Story about a Mechanical Egg, in Three Parts

Part 2:
The Mechanical Egg

Cubi walks up the stairs and out of the mouth of the travelling tube. Behind him is an enormous hole in the ground. Countless tubes disappear over the edge into a snake pit of piping, leading to the city’s central plumbing system.

Lesser Sun is high overhead. It’s also known as Jaundiced Sun, its yellow light is so feeble a source of illumination. The sky is still black, the streets still shadowed. He can’t help but wish he’d worn a warm jumper instead of a thin shirt.

This is the Industrial District. Home to Perni, and a lot of other stuff that Cubi doesn’t care about. The buildings are functional - consisting solely of right angles and surrounded by chicken wire fences with barbed wire at the top. There are no people around, of any species. A few rusty lorries and vans dot the landscape. Smoke rises from the tall chimneys that jut up from the horizon on all sides. The entire district is supposedly infested with dog-rats, although Cubi has thankfully never seen one.

He walks to Perni’s workshop accompanied only by the sound of humming machinery and his own footsteps.


Perni’s workshop is, externally at least, identical to every other building in this part of the Industrial District. It defies description through its invasive anonymity. Only by the attendant sign is Cubi ever able to identify it. The sign reads, Lot 314 - Owner: Pernicious Blueberry.

It does not take a genius to understand why she prefers to be called ‘Perni’.

Cubi stands where the refracting tube can see him and pushes the button by the large, rusty gate. Perni’s voice speaks, tinny and distant: “Cubi. Come in.”

The gates begin to roll open. Not oiled for years, they protest in a shrieking metallic voice that echoes down the deserted street. Perni’s obsessive mind only cares about maintaining those machines directly helpful to her current goal. The idea that being able to enter her workshop is as helpful as you can get is not enough to move her to care about the rusting gate, or the mouldy speaking tube and scratched refracting tube that watch over it.

As Cubi enters the workshop’s car park (the only things parked there are Perni’s rusty old estate car and an even more decomposed shopping trolley), Perni throws open the door and races out. Her hair is perhaps a little shorter than when he last saw her a few weeks ago. She is wearing a pair of jeans, a loose sweater and a warm smile.

“You’re so slow,” she moans. “Come on, get inside!”

She grabs him by the shoulders and propels him bodily through the door.

Cubi is quite happy to live humbly, realigning a few widgets every day and earning just enough to keep books in his bookcase and food in his stomach. In comparison Perni’s approach to life is feverish and extreme. Two or three times a year she takes on a contract from one of the city’s weirder entities, and fulfils it, by herself, often producing unparalleled and pioneering work, and in very little time. In these periods Cubi has found it best to leave her to her own devices. As much as he wishes that he could convey to her how gruelling it is to watch her overwork herself half to death - and several times now this has seemed all too literal a description - she simply won’t listen. Occasionally Cubi will pay her a visit, motivated by whatever magnetism drew them together in the first place, but he will usually leave after a short while, guilty at distracting her as she stresses, unwashed and unkempt, over something he cannot even begin to help her with. After the contract has been completed, though, she always finds him. These are their best moments together, he thinks. Her workshop will be still full of the detritus of the contract, so she escapes into the city to spend time with him on Argon Hill. They talk, or sit silently, while he does his work. She will move weakly and slowly, squinting at Greater Sun; her face will be starkly thin, cheeks unnaturally prominent; her eyes will be shadowed by dark rings - but the eyes themselves will have returned to what Cubi likes to think of as normal. Brown and calm, roving the world around her and piercing deep into objects and organisms, brightly and inquisitively.

All in all, Perni must work for no more than one or two months a year. But the scale of the projects she works on and the short time she promises to do them in are sufficient to earn her immense quantities of money - probably more money than exists in the entire Nematode Quarter, let alone a year of Cubi’s income. As she descends from her profitable mania, Perni clears out her workshop and proceeds to steadily spend all the money on food, the workshop’s rent, and her own personal (often grossly unprofitable) projects. And Cubi gradually learns to start to visit his friend again. Until such time as he calls round and finds her throwing tarpaulin sheets over her personal work and pushing it all into the farthest corner and realises that the money has run out again, and he will briefly lose her to necessity, to stress and starvation and acerbic pleas for solitude - and worst of all to a painful, constipated perversion of the inspiration and curiosity that he likes so much in her when she is financially stable.

These two faces of Perni - manic and stressed; calm and questioning - are almost all he has ever known of her. Although he cares for her unreservedly, he easily understands why Perni has many acquaintances, but only one friend. The unrepentant, grinning idealist he saw exposed to him for that brief moment shortly after they first met never reappeared, and the memory, when it surfaces on certain rare moments, has acquired a dreamlike unreality to it. And yet here she is. Perni the idealist has returned. She has her hands on his arms, pulling him forward.

Her workshop is brightly lit, making the bare concrete walls seem all the more stark and cold. It is the little office in the corner that Cubi has come to think of as Perni’s home, and when he visits he enters into it directly through the workshop’s side door. It will be an enormous mess, as always. Through the windows he can almost make out the heaps of laundry and dirty dishes. In there things are soft and warm. Out here, everything is cold and hard - and each object, even the tiniest screw, has its own labelled drawer or hook.

The floor is almost bare, but in the nearest corner a great mass of something lies underneath a white sheet, thrumming softly.

“Is that what you want to show me?” Cubi asks softly.

Perni releases his sleeve and races over to one corner of the sheet. “Ready?” she asks.

“Uh, yeah. Sure.”

She whips the white sheet from the thrumming mass. “Ta-da!”

“Wow.” Cubi nods approvingly. He waits a few seconds and then adds, “What is it?”

Perni lets her arms fall to her sides, dropping the sheet in a little puddle of fabric. “Isn’t it obvious?”

Cubi scrutinises the thing before him. There is a structure rather like a tent without the canvas. Wires and hoses snake around the metal poles, becoming denser around the centre, where many of them are plugged into a metal ovoid.

“Oh yeah,” Cubi says. “It’s obvious. It’s a, um, a widget?”

Perni develops a crooked smile. “That would be an achievement of a different quality. I thought the fact that it’s egg-shaped might have been a clue.”

Cubi stares at the thing but can’t make any connections.

Perni laughs. “It’s a mechanical egg!”

She seems immensely pleased with this revelation, and Cubi tries to play along, not wishing to shatter whatever fragile balance of humours has made her so happy. Eventually, though, he has to ask, “So, what does it do?”

“It loops through one command over and over again. ‘Be an egg.’”

Cubi steps up to it and looks at it from a few different angles.

Perni looks down at Cubi warmly (although he’s only a few centimetres shorter) and smiles. “You’re not convinced are you? Well don’t worry your little head about it. Trust me: this is the start of something big.”

“Is it going to hatch?”

Perni shrugs. “Maybe.”

“You don’t know?”

“If eggs have to hatch, then it will hatch. But conceivably it could wait an infinite amount of time before it does hatch, which would be the same thing as not really hatching at all.”

Cubi scratches his head, his hand disappearing into his curly, dark blond hair. “I really don’t understand.”

“It’s much simpler than you think it is,” Perni says, slowly walking around the structure that holds the egg. “And much more profound as well. I’m talking about life. About the germ of artificial life. Why start from the top with complicated ‘auto-people’? It’s the process of development that I’ve started with. Successfully, I might add.”

“Artificial life,” Cubi says, weighing the words on the tip of his tongue. “Wow. That does sound pretty cool.”

“I know!”

Perni laughs and grabs Cubi by the shoulders again, this time jumping up and down ecstatically. Unsure how best to remain dignified in this situation, Cubi decides to start laughing and jumping up and down as well.


Cubi wakes up in Perni’s armchair. The last thing he can remember is confessing to how tired he felt while she span a breathtaking tale of synthetic abiogenesis and elegantly delicate machinery. He was sprawled out in this armchair, trying to keep his eyes open while she jumped on her already half-broken foldable bed.

In his dream, a windblown leaf was constantly brushing against his ear. He sees now that it is in fact a stripy green sock that has been draped over the chair back (more likely thrown). Perni’s office home is as cosily messy as ever.

The inventor herself is lying spread-eagled on top of her bed, mouth wide-open, snoring like a power tool.

Cubi stands, his legs protesting, and wanders over to the narrow window. He fumbles with the dusty blinds as quietly as he can, sliding a scientific textbook aside. He looks out at the neglected tarmac yard by the workshop’s side, inhabited only by overflowing dumpsters and a single moribund tree that looks more and more like a rotting broom each year. A decrepit ladder is bolted to the wall and leads to nowhere in particular. Greater Sun shines azurely down from the sky.

Cubi sighs. No work today, it seems, and so no income either.

He wanders out of the office to stand opposite the egg and ponder it for a while. It remains where it is, humming softly. He almost expects it to hatch at any moment. Staring at it proves to be mesmerising. He feels as if he might miss it doing something interesting if he only takes his eyes off it for a moment. And as the present moment morphs seamlessly into the one that follows, it seems that this transition must surely be the one that heralds action - although it does not. Perhaps the next?

Instead, Cubi merely has a prolonged opportunity to study its stainless steel surface, noticing for the first time the rough seams in its smooth surface where the shell has been welded together, until Perni appears suddenly at his side in a dressing gown, a mug in each hand. She hands Cubi the mug with the question mark on it and keeps the one with an exclamation mark for herself. Milky tea for Cubi, black coffee for Perni.

“Still smiling, I see,” Cubi says.

Perni nods wordlessly. Her expression speaks for itself.


It doesn’t last, of course.

Cubi is again woken by the hooting of the speaking tube at an unpleasant hour, not long after he left Perni. Her voice spouts, stressed and angry, from the tube as he lifts it from its hook. “Cubi, I need your help. I need you to come over.”

It’s not in Perni’s nature to say please or apologise for calling at such a time. Cubi doesn’t mind. He can tell from the tone of her voice that this is no time to mess about, to joke or complain. “What is it?” he asks. “What’s happened?”

She starts to answer but he can’t help but interrupt her to ask the obvious question he should have asked in the first place: “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she replies. “Well, okay, I’m not fine, I’m furious. Something’s nicked my fucking egg, Cubi.”

“Oh, crap. Have you called the police?”

“I’m not getting them involved yet. You’ll see when you get here.”

And then she disconnects.

To be continued...

Part three can be found here.

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