Stop-starting at rush hour along the terminally traffic-jammed High Yorick Street towards the centre of the city, junior police officer Aks sees a vision through the window of the automobile.
"That's her! There, there, you see? Look! Look!"
"That's her who?"
Aks rolls down the auto window a little bit and points. "That building there. 'Bookwreck'. She went down the side. Blonde hair. You did history, right?"
"I hate history. I left school early because of how much I hate it. It's why I'm a police officer - no knowledge of history necessary."
"Stop the auto." It's more or less stopped anyway.
"Aks, no, man, it's not worth the paperwork."
Aks leaves his partner, Illu, in the auto, and climbs out into the early evening drizzle.
This part of Cahagan was originally built as a suburb, with leisurely winding roads and large forested gardens separating semi-detached houses. Then it was enclosed by a minor arcology, and lots of the houses were demolished so that heavy chemical processing plants could be installed. Then the arcology was destroyed, the plants fell into disrepair and the suburb became a favela. Some time later still, the largest plant, being vaguely temple-like in its construction and central in its placement, became the centre of a holy city. And then, over the course of uncounted more years, this part of Cahagan was repurposed another half a dozen times, each new development built into, or over the top of, or out of the pieces of what went before.
Right now, High Yorick is central business district. Retail stores line the streets, occupying ancient buildings of every conceivable architectural style, like hermit crabs inhabiting abandoned seashells. It would be a fantastic multicoloured jumble, thriving with human life, but it's the tail end of a thoroughly miserable business day and everybody is hurrying home under black waterproof hoods and umbrellas before the clouds finally burst. It is usually a spacious and vibrant district to walk through, gawp at and shop in, but the roads have always been too narrow to handle the traffic that hits them every day at this time, so the place is gridlocked with vehicles: chunky family autos, unfashionably grey-green mechanical trams, double-decker buses, triple-decker goods transports, motorcycles, pedal bikes, horse-drawn cabs. The air is grey with exhaust fumes, the ground slick with rain.
Aks dons his cap and picks his way easily through the stationary traffic to the pavement. An idiot on wheeled shoes nearly runs him down; he makes an executive decision not to caution the guy. He sprints a few steps past Globo, a crenellated and brightly-lit cathedral-cum-supermarket, and ducks into the relative dryness of the still-very-wet alley between it and Bookwreck, an antique antique book shop.
Aks follows the tiny alley down three shallow steps, around a corner, and into a small open area between three massive, black ivy-covered buildings. In one corner is a small garden, fenced off, populated by hardy plants capable of surviving without much sunlight. In another, a second winding alley leads off into parts unknown. The noise of the high street, which is at most twenty metres away, is completely muffled here and the quiet is startling. Pale yellow light is cast by a motion-sensitive floodlight. It's a whole other world.
There's the woman. She's short and blonde and thirty-five and carrying a heavy satchel. She's unlocking a red-painted door about twice her height, which, from its location, is probably the back door into Bookwreck. The key is gigantic, at least fifteen centimetres long. This is nothing unusual.
"How old are you," asks Aks, getting halfway through this sentence before realising that he hasn't thought this through at all, "ma'am?"
The woman turns around, regards Aks and his slightly ill-fitting police uniform with mild perplexity, and then calculatedly turns away him and opens the door.
Aks starts forward, trying to give a reassuring impression. "Is your name--"
The door slams shut behind her. That's not fully intentional on her part, it's a very heavy door.
Aks stops still for a moment, and gets rained on a little. A faint, pathetic beeping emanates from a module on his belt. Illu wants him back at the auto. It's not an unreasonable demand.
"I'm going mad," he says to himself.
He says it again, to Illu, when he gets back to the automobile, which has only managed to move a short distance down the street in the meantime.
Illu glares and gestures one hand towards him, a gesture which means "And? What happened? You lunatic?"
Aks: "Just... just--" He points to the road. "Nothing. Let's go."
"You can chase girls when you're off-duty. What's this about history?"
"I'm not sure," says Aks. "I need to check my old textbooks."
The University is on the other side of the city from High Yorick, nearer the sea. It's built into, and over the top of, a hollow granite and limestone geodesic dome left over from several Crashes previous. The dome is three hundred metres in diameter and fifty metres thick. Odd granite hexagons have been removed at strategic places on several levels, providing access to the gigantic dark cavity inside, which is completely filled with brightly-lit offices, parks, lecture halls, sports halls and accommodation. The exterior of the stone shell, meanwhile, has been covered (all except the very top) with more of the same. It is as if conventional skyscrapers of steel and glass were liquified, and then injected into the hemispherical mould, and then painted all over the outside for good measure.
This is modern architecture crossed with ancient Egyptian notions of building for the ages. While the exterior and interior have been built, shaken down by earthquakes, rebuilt, abandoned during war, recolonised, destroyed and rebuilt again once every two or three generations for thousands of years, the stone shell supporting them both has stood impassively for that entire time without even cracking. Because it is so long after the fact, and because so many different hands have touched and used the shell for so many different purposes in the meantime, it is impossible to guess who originally built it, or even what their technological level was. It could have been done with stone age technology. But there are holes built into the architecture which are perfect for ventilation and elevator shafts, and there are slots perfect for heavy load-bearing girders in all the right places. So who knows?
There are others like it elsewhere in the world. Possibly they were built by the same people, but it's a sturdy design; parallel evolution isn't out of the question. Most of them have ended up as government buildings, or military fortresses. Some of them are in jungles or deserts and are unoccupied save for animals and plants. Right now, as it has been since the year dot, this one is the host of the University of Cahagan.
Aks' old professor lives and works from the fiftieth exterior floor. He has a window pointing south. The view, which takes in almost all the other major architectural oddities and wonders in Cahagan, is enviable, provided one doesn't suffer overly from vertigo.
"There is something in this," says Aks, once he has explained what he has discovered. It is some weeks later. Aks has spent the intervening time doing research, making sure he has something worth showing instead of simply making a fool of himself. The work made him miss academia. But being back in this office reminds him of the things he doesn't miss, namely the critical eyes of his teachers and the really rather unsettling way in which the University creaks when the wind blows hard. The shell is thousands of years old, to be sure, but Aks can't help reminding himself that this office was only built a decade or two ago, to replace a previous office which fell down in a storm.
"All the previous Crashes have happened at about this technological stage," says the professor, whose name is Gilland. "Everybody's looking for a connection. Or the condition that causes each one. That's no secret, at least in historical circles. Over the next few decades, as technology advances, I can see public concern going up gradually, until we either get past whatever causes a Crash, or it happens. But what you have is tenuous. Why must there even be an answer? It may just be a matter of statistics. Technology reaches a plateau, we stay there, the technology spreads around the world... if the world stays the way it is for long enough then any disaster, no matter how unlikely, becomes a serious probability."
"It's an old discussion," admits Aks.
"The oldest," remarks Gilland.
"But it just hit me so hard. It all made sense when I saw her."
"Extraordinary claims et cetera."
"Look-- there's a legend. The ancient Malaysians, pre-Crash-Five, had a legend about a priestess who couldn't die. And then the Crash-Four Greenlanders had legends about an undying female as well. The only way they could get rid of her was by mummifying her alive."
"There are lots of legends about women and men living forever."
"And then right after the most recent one you have Dalako Tjui who ruled most of ancient East Asia, and fits the pattern."
"It's just legend. There are many legends about many subjects. Like lightning, or snakes, or the origin of the world and all the diverse artifacts in it. They're common mythological themes. Unexplainable things, like death, they capture the imagination, they demand explanation. It doesn't mean there was ever a, a, a single snake which encircled the Earth, spawning all the myths at once. You should speak to an anthropologist. Blonde immortals are everywhere in mythology. It means nothing."
Aks stares glumly at his various bookmarked pictures. The room creaks again. He shivers.
"Noise still putting you off?"
"I always preferred the inside to the outside when I was studying here," says Aks. "You may not get as much natural light, but at least you don't have to worry about your room sliding off the roof into oblivion any minute."
"Well, maybe we should both get moving. I have a tutorial elsewhere in a little while anyway. You know they found another one of these domes just a couple of months ago?"
Aks carefully packs away all his books and picks his coat up from the back of his chair. "I didn't."
"In Antarctica. It's absolutely pristine, because it's utterly, utterly inaccessible. You have to trek two hundred kilometres across sheer ice to get there and then you can't get inside it. Somebody's turned it into a bunker of some sort, blocked off all the usual passages with steel locks."
"To stop people getting in or to stop something getting out?"
"Well, that's the question, isn't it?"
They head for the elevators and descend, talking about Aks' police work instead of his hypothesis. Aks is still a fresh-faced newbie in the force, but he already has half a dozen decent stories. It's enough to last them the tedious ride to the ground floor and the short walk from there to the nearest exit from the dome.
"I'm going this way. I have some students to tutor," says Gilland.
"Well, my shift's starting imminently too," says Aks. The police station is in the opposite direction.
"I don't know what I can say to you, Aks," says Gilland. "If you are still sure about this, get some evidence. Pictures are fine, biographical sources would be better. Do some actual research, like you've been trained to do. Use the library. But please don't stalk this poor woman. If you're really, really, really sure, and you're prepared to endure the embarrassment, fine, approach her. Once. But if she tells you to jump in the harbour, please just drop it, hmm? Don't get obsessed. I don't think I'd be insulting you terribly if I said I think you're a better police officer than you are a historian."
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