When Cubi arrives, Perni comes out to greet him. Both Greater Sun and Lesser Sun are obscured by the horizon. It is a dark night, tinged orange by neon street lights.
Once again Perni grabs Cubi’s arm, but this time she grips him tightly, vicelike, provoking a mild inkling of claustrophobia. She pulls him into her workshop and turns him to face the space where the mechanical egg was resting when he last saw it.
“You may notice,” Perni says mordantly, “a few changes to the décor.”
Cubi stares wide eyed for a moment and then says, “There’s a bloody great big hole in your wall.”
There is certainly something of a breech. Where the egg was once to be seen, instead there is the debris of whatever explosive event punched through the wall, showering broken breeze blocks and dust across the workshop floor. The weird scaffold that held the egg has been twisted open as if it were so much flimsy wire. And then there is the hole: a great, gaping, ragged maw through which can be seen the starless urban sky. The egg, as he already knew, is gone.
Cubi shivers. He thought to wear a jacket this time, but the night air is entering the workshop freely through this unplanned ventilation. He shakes his head, trying to make sense of it all. “What the fuck happened?”
“Come closer and have a look,” Perni says.
She pulls him forward again, yet to relinquish his arm, Cubi slipping and tripping as he walks through the mess on the floor. They arrive shortly at the exact scene of the crime. Perni points to several different objects around the scaffold.
Cubi kneels down to pick up the nearest one. A gigantic blue feather, easily the size of his whole arm. It is emerald blue, and ripples with light. “A bird did this? A great big bloody bird? A bird did this?”
“It makes sense doesn’t it?”
Cubi opens his mouth and then stops to think. Not the best order to do things in. After a few seconds, he manages to come out with: “Does it?”
“Birds,” Perni says. “Eggs. Birds. Eggs. Birds and eggs. It’s doesn’t require many brain cells to see the connection.”
“So you’re saying that an enormous bird punched through your wall,” Cubi says, organising his thoughts, “in order to steal a mechanical egg that it couldn’t have even known was in here anyway?”
Somehow, Cubi realises that this is beginning to turn into an argument. He doesn’t want it to become one, but Perni is definitely speaking louder than normal when she says, “Where did the feathers come from Cubi? A big bird was definitely involved in there somewhere, wasn’t it?”
Always averse to conflict, Cubi folds. “Okay, you’re right. A giant bird stole your egg.”
The two of them survey the wreckage in silence for a good minute.
Then Cubi says, “Now what? Call the police?”
“The police catch criminals - not flying monsters.” Perni begins to chew thoughtfully on her thumbnail, and Cubi can tell what is coming next. “It needs someone who can cope with the unfamiliar, who can innovate.”
Cubi tips his head to one side. “Sounds like you, doesn’t it?”
Perni nods absently.
Perni snatches the feather out of Cubi’s hands. “We start with a visit to the library.”
She marches the both of them out of her workshop, throwing on a heavy coat. She grabs her reading glasses from the top of a pile of books and tucks them into one of her pockets. She closes the door as they leave, and locks it.
“Hope any prospective burglars don’t notice the big hole in the wall round the side,” Cubi notes.
Perni shrugs. “I live in abject terror of thieves taking my unwashed cutlery.”
Cubi starts to make towards the old rusted estate resting in Perni’s parking space.
“That old thing?” Perni says dismissively. “Remember when I took two jobs one after the other and you threw a hissy fit at me?”
“I recall expressing my concerns.”
“Well, I spent all the cash from the first job upgrading to the gyrocopter generation.”
She leads him around the corner and up a bent, creaking ladder that leaves paint flecks on his hands. He doesn’t dare to look down during the ascent, even if it is just one storey. At the top, confronted with Perni’s gyrocopter resting on an improvised landing pad, Cubi almost wishes he had fallen.
“That’s what you want instead of a car? How old is it?”
“No more than twelve years,” Perni soothes. “And it has all the certificates.”
Cubi swallows. “Can’t we just take the car?”
Perni raises an eyebrow. “One of these days you should try paying attention. Someone made off with the tyres months ago. It’s resting on bricks.”
Cubi never noticed. “It is?”
He looks over Perni’s new vehicle dubiously. A now unfashionable, roughly spherical body, with a canopy and cockpit that look like they belong on an old fighter plane. The rotors are folded up and drooping in a way that does not inspire confidence in their durability. On top of that, the whole thing has a weird, two-tone paint job, as if its has been welded together from two halves.
“Perni…” Cubi says half-heartedly.
“Here,” Perni says, after throwing open the canopy and rooting around inside. She hands him a brown paper bag.
The city looks different from higher up, but no smaller. It sprawls out in every direction, as least as far as the horizon, lumpy and covered in a haze of heat and exhaust fumes. At the centre the tallest buildings congregate together in a titanic huddle. Around them are heaped smaller residential mounds, balloon houses and rectangular blocks of flats. Sludgetown is a sunken puddle to the north, the glistening black fluids that run through its streets reflecting back the light of the two suns; twisted spires pouring thin grey fog into the sky. Behind them, the chimneys of the Industrial District look like a vast collection of matches balanced upright. Sky District is visible now, a great floating island covered in cottages, farms and wind turbines, tethered over the heads of the nocturnal denizens of Shadowtown.
Breathtaking is too small a word for it.
Perni is in the pilot’s seat, in front of and slightly below him. “Cubi,” she says, “do you see that?”
“No, I have my eyes closed.”
“Open them then. Look!”
She taps on the canopy. Cubi parts his eyelids slightly and follows the line of her finger. He opens his eyes wider, but still can’t make anything out. He tells Perni as much.
“It’s just passing by the river. Now it’s in front of that building with the gaudy billboard.”
Cubi can just make out an airborne silhouette. The perspective is messed up. Compared to the big buildings it glides between, it looks tiny. “I think I see something. What is it?”
“It a big bloody bird,” Perni says through clenched teeth. “It’s got to be the one.”
“There are plenty of birds in the city. We can’t even see what colour it is.”
“Let’s find out then.”
Perni yanks the control column and the gyrocopter lurches in the direction of the flying creature. Cubi covers his eyes with his hands.
Cubi drops to the ground from the cockpit. His legs give out and he falls onto his hands and knees. The soil beneath his palms is dry and the grass is yellow and sparse.
“We should have gone for it,” Perni says unhappily.
Cubi swallows. “Why didn’t you then?”
“You were telling me very emphatically not to.”
“You’ve never let that stop you before.”
“This time you would have had to live with the consequences of my stupidity.”
“It wasn’t the living part of it I minded so much,” Cubi says, getting weakly to his feet. He can’t bring himself to stand fully. They’ve landed too close to the edge for his liking. And it’s not like this is anything more solid than soil and perhaps some rock that they’re standing on. The gyrocopter rests only a few metres from the edge of a sheer drop. Beyond that: an immense reservoir, roiling and foaming turbulently. Water boils into it from a structure that defies all sense of scale - part tunnel, part leviathan’s mouth. Inside it a multitude of vast turbine blades spin slowly, but with enough force to churn up water from a subterranean freshwater ocean. Just looking at it makes him feel weak. Wondering if Perni could have flown through it makes his head spin.
But she did fly through the city well enough - weaving between skyscrapers at high speed. Maybe she could have done it. Looking at it, though, he has trouble trying to regret being on the ground.
“I really don’t know,” Cubi says. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why you wanted me along anyway. All I did was hold you back.”
“Have you ever gone looking for a lost mechanical egg before, Cubi?”
“Not in recent memory, no.”
“Me neither. Two heads and all that. I’m not sorry I brought you along.” She looks thoughtfully into the gnashing jaws of the waterworks. “And maybe holding me back was the right thing to do.”
“Do you think it has a nest in there?” Cubi asks.
“Maybe. Maybe it just thought it could away from us in there. Well it did get away from us. There must be a dozen ways out from there, if you can make it through.”
“If it made it through.”
Perni sighs. “It probably wasn’t even the same bloody bird.”
Lesser Sun is low in the sky, and Greater Sun is still nowhere to be seen. Shadows are long and enveloping, even at the top of Argon Hill. The air is cool. Cubi sits patiently in front of his table. Perni is hunched over gloomily in a fold-up chair beside him.
The rest of the city is already awake. The sounds of traffic carry over to the Nematode Quarter, even as it remains silent itself.
Cubi lays out his tools, one by one. Perni watches him solemnly.
Cubi takes one strange looking implement between his thumb and forefinger. He holds it up to examine its narrow hook in the feeble light. He clicks something on the handle and it twitches curiously. He turns to Perni and smiles half-heartedly. “This is much better than a screwdriver.”
Perni nods. “I know.”
Her head droops and she looks back down at the book that lies open on the ground in front of her. The emerald feather from her workshop lies across the page, next to a photograph of an identical feather. Cubi has read what the book has to say. And Perni has read it at least a dozen times.
Greater Blue Prancing Bird
A large, flightless bird from the Antipodean Mountains, renowned for its brilliant blue plumage. The Prancing bird subsists on mountain lions and other large mammals. It is capable of reaching running speeds of up to 60km/h and reportedly can split rocks with its powerful beak. Although it is rarely encountered in urban environs, continued encroachment into its habitat by…
Perni sighs loudly.
“It was just an egg,” Cubi says. “You still have your health. And all your limbs. That kind of stuff.”
“Yeah.” Perni sighs again. “But I was looking forward to seeing what happened to it. If it would hatch, what would come out of it…”
Cubi shrugs. “Make another one.”
Perni meets his eye. She closes her teeth around the tip of her thumbnail and chomps a few times. Then she smiles - a wide, genuine smile. “Yeah, okay,” she says.
Greater Sun peeks over the horizon, casting blue light onto soil that begins to squirm. And Perni smiles. Cubi smiles too.