A Singular Event in the Fourth Dimension
by Andrea M. Pawley
Olive touched the tiny carbon fiber legs. They folded under her fingertip. The drone was dead. Its accumulator nodes held enough copper to get Olive through the next three days. Papa had always provided Olive with the inorganics she needed, but Papa hadn’t been home much since Mama stopped going to work and the second grandma arrived five days ago.
With her hand curled around the drone, Olive wiggled backward through the sinewy filament holding each living quarters trailer like a barnacle to the side of the elevator. The filament slowed Olive. So did a shortage of metals in her system. None of today’s dead drones carried the gold she needed most.
Olive aimed for the nearest garden platform. She pushed out from underneath the trailer. Weightless, she sailed through the air. Mid-point station bulged overhead. Olive’s trajectory calculation was less than one hundred percent accurate, but garden platform magnets still caught her metal-frame feet. Olive’s landing puffed fairy dust into the air.
Standing, Olive examined her arm. The filament had ripped her sleeve. She plucked at the ragged hole in her shirt and tried to twist the threads back together. She couldn’t. The second grandma had already scolded Olive for tearing her clothing. Olive didn’t need a maturity enhancement to predict the verbal consequences of an additional tear.
Only the compiler inside the family trailer could mend Olive’s shirt. The fairies should have been able to help, but so far they hadn’t offered any magical assistance like the stories said they would. The compiler was too near the second grandma, who wouldn’t come outside. The second grandma was Mama’s mother. She had vertigo and said no human should be forced to endure the view from so far above the Earth.
Olive’s hand opened. Soot from the copper cache drone smudged Olive’s palm. She wiped as much of the contaminant as she could off of the drone and onto the inside hem of her sleeve. Fairy dust gathered there, too. For the last thirty-three hours, Olive’s error log had been warning that the consumables filter at the center of her back was near capacity at ninety-nine point four percent. Soot would clog the filter even more and cause problems.
Olive set the dead drone on her tongue and swallowed. The little body tumbled into Olive’s reducer, where two other drones with their own inorganic caches already waited. Olive’s reducer heated the drones. Copper, lead, and arsenic began the shift to Olive’s nearest accumulator nodes.
On the other side of the habitat shield wall, light flared in the vacuum of space. The debris being targeted by mid-point station lasers wasn’t visible. Not like twenty-eight days before, when Olive and Mama watched thousands of laser flashes break the last of the abandoned Space Station Agarwal into pieces small enough that the elevator and its habitats wouldn’t be compromised. Since then, sparkling metal dust had been osmosing through the habitat shield wall and sprinkling everything.
Mama said it was fairy dust, and it had magical powers. At lights out on the day the fairy dust came, Mama told a new bedtime story about an android engineer princess who lived at the top of the elevator. All the android engineer princess’s friends were fairies, and the princess talked with them all day long, especially when the King and Queen were away working at mid-point station, where they kept passengers and cargo safe.
“How many fairies are there?” Olive had said.
“I could only guess,” Mama said. “But I won’t.”
“Do the android engineer princess’s fairy friends ever ride the dust to mid-point?”
Mama hesitated. “Yes.”
“Given the gravity gradient between the castle and mid-point,” Olive said, “and the effects of solar radiation on small particles, how do the fairies transfer themselves and the dust at sufficient velocity to match the observed flux?”
Mama’s lips pressed together. Papa had said that might mean Mama wanted to say something, but she didn’t know precisely how to say it. Papa couldn’t define how often “might” occurred, especially not now since Mama was pregnant. But Papa said if Mama’s silence lasted more than ten seconds, it sometimes helped to change the subject. He defined “sometimes” as every third instance.
“Why can’t I see the fairies?” Olive said.
“They’re smaller than the dust,” Mama said and chewed her lip.
“I don’t know.”
“Does the princess get lonely when the fairies leave the top of the elevator and ride the dust down to mid-point?”
“Lonely” was the reason Mama and Papa received permission four hundred seventy-two days before to remove one of the low-performing androids from the reducer pile at mid-point station. Mama and Papa had chosen Olive, and she came to live with them after that. Following eight conversations about the meaning of “lonely” and two power-downs while Mama modified accessible portions of Olive’s programming, Olive recognized enough input conditions to estimate when a person was likely to be lonely. She understood other things after that, too.
“The princess never gets lonely,” Mama said. “The fairies live in the princess’s heart even when the fairies are away, just like you live in my heart.”
“How many fairies–?”
“It’s a magical story,” Mama said. “You’re not supposed to ask a lot of questions.”
Afterward, when it was time to lay still in her bed-webbing while Mama and Papa slept, Olive closed her eyes like she always did. But instead of listening for the movements of rogue drone swarms or running reprogramming simulations that might allow the compiler inside the family trailer to speak, Olive calculated how many fairies and their dust could fit into the average android engineer princess’s heart under a variety of wing and body size conditions.
Laser light flashed again beyond the habitat shield wall. Olive’s reducer cooled. Melted drone components moved like fairy dust inside Olive and helped reduce her metal shortage. Her degradation rate slowed. Twenty-three hours sixteen minutes after the second grandma arrived, she said Mama and Papa shouldn’t throw away money saving for an old-model android’s maturity enhancement when a baby was finally on the way. Papa wouldn’t clarify what steps were involved in the action “throw away money.” And he couldn’t calculate the effects of a baby arriving. He just said it wasn’t polite to listen to people talk in other rooms, and Olive shouldn’t do it.
Olive knelt and swept her hands along the garden platform at her feet. Her palms came up coated with sparkling dust she could examine later when she lay in her bed-webbing. She scraped the dust into a bodysuit pouch before making her way along the magnetized catwalk, which served as a bridge from her family’s trailer and garden platform to the habitat shield wall. Platform and catwalk levels above cast thin, curved shadows on Olive’s path. Mid-point air handlers surged and quieted. For a week after the fairy dust came, each person living at mid-point had to wear a mask over their nose and mouth. Olive hadn’t need to though. Mama said fairy dust couldn’t hurt an android engineer princess.
One hundred twenty-eight steps from the family trailer, Olive stood at the catwalk’s edge. She leaned, forehead-first, against the habitat shield wall. It compressed under her weight. She osmosed just enough. Habitat wall data traveling between the Earth’s surface and the top of the elevator flowed past. Olive watched and listened. None of the transmissions were about fairies or castles or android engineer princesses with a first grandma and a second grandma.
The first grandma, who was Papa’s Mama, had a different vertigo profile than the second grandma. Twelve days after Olive came to live with Mama and Papa, the first grandma visited. She’d stood at the edge of the catwalk with Olive. Together, they looked down along the lines of the elevator tower to the Earth below.
The first grandma said, “You’re wonderful, Olive!” and “You’re amazing!” and “Someone else can analyze the tensile strength of the elevator’s cables. You have the most important job now — giving two people a child to love.”
Before she went back down the elevator and home, the first grandma hugged Olive so tightly the consumables filter in Olive’s back compressed.
After the second grandma arrived five days ago, Olive asked when the first grandma would come again. Mama said that would happen after the baby was born, when relatives were supposed to visit.
The catwalk vibrated. A humming from below drew closer. A car and its trailing containers passed inside the elevator tower. The convoy slowed to a stop at mid-point station overhead.
“Olive!” Mama said from somewhere out of sight. “Where are you?”
Olive pulled away from the habitat shield wall. For two point six seconds, her forehead’s indentation on the wall distorted the Earth to concave.
“I’m here, Mama!” Olive said. She bounded up the catwalk. Fairy dust scattered ahead of her.
Mama stood at the base of the stairs in front of the family trailer. The garden platform beside Mama grew sunflowers and butterweed, her favorites. Careening toward Mama, Olive grabbed a catwalk handhold and jolted to a stop.
“You need to be more careful, Olive,” Mama said. Her hair was tangled in places like fairies had gotten into it.
“Did I make a critical error, Mama?” For those, Mama adjusted Olive’s programming. Six times during past adjustments, Mama inadvertently introduced new errors.
Mama shook her head. “Only a small one.”
That meant Olive would have to fix the error by learning and remembering.
Mama pulled Olive close. The material of Mama’s leggings was smooth against Olive’s face. Mama’s belly loomed large near Olive’s head. Every day, the baby inside Mama grew bigger and crowded out the space in Mama’s heart that was supposed to hold Olive.
From the habitat shield wall, Olive had learned that the baby would be made from parts of Mama and parts of Papa. The baby wasn’t coming from the reducer pile. Olive calculated that after the baby was born, it would have the most important job, and Olive wouldn’t have any job. She would have to return to the reducer pile. The part of Olive that made calculations about “lonely” didn’t want to go back there.
Mama looked up. Olive looked up, too. Overhead, elevator passengers emerging from mid-point station moved like fairies who’d drunk too much fermented nectar. The passengers traversed their own catwalk leading to the habitat shield wall.
Mama said, “Do you know where Papa is, Olive?”
“He’s working elevator car maintenance at mid-point station,” Olive said.
“Would you look for him through the local nets and tell me exactly where he’s working within the station?”
“Papa said I shouldn’t use my access to watch people when they haven’t given me permission.”
“Oh,” Mama said, and her voice sounded different from before. “Then this is a ‘Mama Priority’ instruction.”
“Mama Priority” had been established when Olive’s programming was modified to recognize “lonely” conditions. Before the second grandma arrived, Mama invoked this high-level instruction an average of one point eight times per week. In the past five days though, Mama Priority had determined Olive’s actions nineteen times. All but four of those instances had been when the second grandma was in the same room.
“Yes, Mama,” Olive said. She scanned the cameras in all the mid-point station passenger areas and in the maintenance facility. The one hundred twenty-seventh angle showed Papa. “He’s in Bay Nine working Checklist Procedure Fourteen.”
“Is his safety harness fully engaged?” Mama said.
Olive swiveled the camera with the best view. “Eight point security is activated on each of four nodes.” Mama’s harness could only achieve six point security despite the modifications for pregnant managers. Mama hadn’t gone to work since two days before the second grandma arrived.
“Good,” Mama said. “Did Papa request any additional shifts for today?”
“I can’t access his schedule through the local nets,” Olive said. “That’s protected information.”
Mama took a deep, anomalous breath. Papa said that might mean Mama would say something that wasn’t logical.
“I’m not asking you to access the local nets,” Mama said. “I need you to look at the data stream into our trailer. I could do it myself from inside, but Grandma would see me and find a new way to ask why her son-in-law’s spending so much time at work while she’s here. Then she’ll give me more advice about how to make the baby come quicker. I’ve heard enough of that. I just want to know Papa’s schedule.”
Olive smiled. Papa said smiling sometimes helped when people weren’t logical.
“Mama Priority,” Mama said.
Olive tuned her receiver to the correct signal.
“This is Papa’s last shift of the day,” Olive said. “It ends at sixteen hundred hours.”
The muscles in Mama’s face relaxed. “Thanks, Olive. Go inside now, and see if Grandma will let you help her with lunch. She still doesn’t know how to use the compiler.”
“Are you coming inside, too?”
“Soon,” Mama said and rubbed Olive’s head with a warm hand.
Olive climbed the four steps to the family trailer. She opened the exterior door and entered the airlock. Six sparkles of floating fairy dust came in, too. The door sucked closed behind Olive. The air pressure between the locks equalized with the pressure inside the trailer. Before the second grandma arrived, Olive, Mama and Papa never engaged the trailer’s airlocks. But the second grandma said the habitat shield wall might fail, all the air at mid-point would be sucked away, and everyone would die. The second grandma didn’t understand about lasers and fairy dust.
The interior airlock door opened. Olive stepped inside. Artificial light put the shadows in the wrong places.
Since the second grandma’s arrival, the inside of the family trailer no longer showed the view to the outside. Interior fairy dust averaged twenty-two percent less luminous. Normal reflectivity only returned when a power fluctuation caused the view to flicker on. The first time that happened, the second grandma vomited chunks of Earth food that Olive and the compiler didn’t recognize. Now, the second grandma’s gold-plated cross with its attached polycarbonate man hung on a gray wall that no longer showed the sun’s transit and the dark sky full of distant stars.
Olive glanced at the second grandma. She stood in the kitchen with her back to Olive. The second grandma wore magnetized boots designed for elevator tourists who wanted a firm grip on the floor. Tourist boots required one hundred twelve percent more effort to lift than Mama’s boots, and the second grandma grimaced when she walked.
She wasn’t walking now though. She was making atypical sounds in her throat. Her fist hit the compiler’s touchpad. Two hovering soup bulbs drifted on a stream of air moving away from the second grandma.
Careful not to draw attention to herself, Olive studied the polycarbonate man’s attachment points to the cross. A gold flake protruded from one such point. The flake was large enough to eliminate Olive’s gold deficiency. She wouldn’t need special tools to remove the flake. She could grab hold of it with her fingers. The polycarbonate man didn’t need gold in his system. He didn’t have a micro-articulated phase transition frame under his skin. He didn’t even have skin. Olive reached up.
“Don’t touch that!” the second grandma said.
Olive’s hand pulled back. “How did you see–?”
“I have eyes in the back of my head.”
No habitat shield wall transmission had ever mentioned this characteristic of grandmas.
Olive smiled. “Mama told me, ‘Go inside now, and see if Grandma will let you help her with lunch. She still doesn’t know how to use the compiler.'” Olive spoke in her own voice not in Mama’s. Papa said speaking in someone else’s voice was never appropriate and could cause a great deal of trouble.
The second grandma’s cheeks reddened. Olive didn’t have enough data to calculate why that happened, but based on previous second grandma information, Olive prepared to shield her auditory nodes.
Instead of raising her voice, the second grandma chewed her lip like Mama did.
“The compiler’s broken,” the second grandma said. “Can you fix it?”
The second grandma had never before asked Olive to do anything.
“I will attempt to,” Olive said. Walking on her misplaced shadow, Olive crossed the room. She stood in the kitchen next to the second grandma and the compiler. Olive’s hand pressed onto the compiler’s interface and the two specks of fairy dust glittering there. She connected with the compiler’s database. She read the error log.
The device was an old model, but it wasn’t broken. Something was stuck inside. Olive analyzed the coding. The second grandma had tried to program the compiler to “Bake a Loaf of Bread.” Olive and the compiler were familiar with the “Bake” and “Bread” processes, but the “Loaf” process was unknown.
Through the compiler’s connection, Olive skimmed the habitat wall feed. She analyzed eleven archived transmissions about “Loaf.” She fixed the compiler’s code and set the output conditions for the compiler’s door to open.
It did. Fairy dust puffed away from the compiler. Wedged inside was a loaf of bread covered in more crust than Olive had ever seen with her own eyes. She reached toward the loaf.
“Stop!” the second grandma said. “Where I come from, robots don’t handle the food.”
“Be quiet, and step aside.”
Olive moved. The second grandma’s hand extended toward the compiler. Her fingertips touched the steaming loaf of bread. In loud bursts, the second grandma spoke three new idioms Olive could research the next time she linked to the habitat shield wall.
The interior airlock door opened. Mama stepped inside the trailer.
“What’s wrong?” Mama said.
The second grandma’s face was even redder than before Olive fixed the compiler.
“Lunch is ready,” the second grandma said. She fumbled with a crumb vacuum platter and caught the loaf of bread. She snatched the drifting soup bulbs from the air before clipping everything to the table.
Mama put a hand on her belly. Her mouth twisted up in the face she made when she had a cramp.
“I need a moment first,” Mama said.
“Is the baby coming?” the second grandma said.
Mama sighed. “No, Mother.” Mama walked down the hall and toward the rear of the trailer. She stepped into the washroom and was out of sight.
Shifting to stand behind the second grandma, Olive redirected a corner light. It shone past three glimmering specks of airborne fairy dust and highlighted the spot on the back of the second grandma’s head where her floating hair was thinnest.
The second grandma spun around. “What are you doing?”
“Attempting to locate your extra eyes,” Olive said. She failed to shield her auditory nodes in time.
Fourteen seconds later, the second grandma walked at a faster-than-average pace toward where Mama had gone. Olive requested a third bulb of soup from the compiler so everyone could eat.
“You need to get rid of it,” the second grandma said from the other room. “It’s unnatural. Your grandparents fought in a war to keep machines like that where they belong — in the factory or in the reducer pile.”
“Mother, please,” Mama said.
Olive turned her audio input low enough that she couldn’t hear any more of the conversation. Sitting at the kitchen table, Olive pulled the loaf of bread and a crumb vacuum platter toward herself. She began to tear off strips of crust from the loaf. Mama used to do the same before she reprogrammed the compiler to make slices of bread without crust so Olive’s consumables filter wouldn’t need to be emptied so often.
Olive removed all the crust from the loaf. She let crust strips float beyond the reach of the crumb vacuum. After analyzing forty-eight internally-stored castle images, Olive shaped the loose crust into a castle for an android engineer princess. The last strip of crust became a short turret and a thin drawbridge. Using the fairy dust from inside her bodysuit pouch, Olive decorated the castle’s interior walls so an android engineer princess could see the twinkling light when she lay in her bed-webbing.
“What have you done?” the second grandma said. Her voice was loud despite Olive’s reduced audio. The second grandma and Mama stood close by. Olive hadn’t seen either of them return. Mama’s mouth hung open. The second grandma’s gaze moved between Olive and the crust-free loaf of bread. Olive turned her audio up.
“She’s malfunctioning,” the second grandma said. “She’ll kill us all.”
“She can’t,” Mama said.
“She needs to eat every bit of that crust.”
“It’ll clog her consumables filter.”
“Do you hear yourself?” the second grandma said. “A person doesn’t have a consumables filter.” The second grandma pointed a finger at Olive. “That’s a machine pretending to be human. It doesn’t belong in your home.”
“I’m not a machine,” Olive said. “I’m an android. My heart can hold all the fairies.”
Mama’s brow wrinkled. The compiler’s light turned on. The dust in the room brightened. The second grandma turned to Mama.
“A real child is going to need all your love,” the second grandma said. “What you’re doing now is a waste.”
Shimmering dust swirled nearby like the pirouetting fairies were at last ready to help. They just didn’t know where to apply their magic. Olive understood what to do. The fairies only needed a little assistance. Then the second grandma would see that Olive didn’t need to go back to the reducer pile. She just needed another job, one that meant she could stay with Mama and Papa.
Olive shifted the flows from two air vents in the trailer. A sparkle of fairy dust looped toward the second grandma. It dove into the space between the second grandma’s parted lips. Just a speck of fairy dust couldn’t hurt a person. The second grandma’s mouth closed around the dust. Her chest expanded with breath. Olive glanced at the space beside the second grandma’s overlarge boots. In the stories, flowers sprouted when magic got inside a person.
The floor showed no signs of rupturing though. The second grandma’s face pinched together. She coughed and spit out the fairy dust. It landed on Olive. If Mama saw what happened, she didn’t say so.
“We don’t waste anything here, Mother,” Mama said. She pulled off the largest of the crust castle walls. “Not even this.”
Mama squeezed the crust into a twinkling ball. It contained more specks of fairy dust than Olive could count out loud in a week. Mama raised the ball to her mouth like she was going to take a bite. But only an android engineer princess could eat that much fairy dust. It would be poison to Mama and the baby.
“You shouldn’t eat it, Mama,” Olive said.
“I don’t mind,” Mama said. Her mouth opened wider.
Olive’s hand shot out. She snatched the crust ball from Mama and stuffed it into her own mouth. It almost didn’t fit.
“What are you doing?” Mama said.
Olive couldn’t speak. She tried to chew. The ball was too big.
“Your consumables filter will clog,” Mama said. “You’ll shut down.”
“Well, let her then,” the second grandma said.
The crust began to dissolve in Olive’s mouth. A slurry formed around the orb. It tasted of thirty two different metals. Cadmium, beryllium and cobalt were prominent.
Mama’s hand cupped the space in front of Olive’s chin.
“Spit it out, Olive,” Mama said.
A new warning appeared in Olive’s error log. Her consumables filter had risen to ninety-nine point six percent full.
“Help me, Mother,” Mama said. “She’s hurting herself. Probably because of something I did wrong in her coding.”
“She doesn’t feel any pain,” the second grandma said. “How can she hurt herself?”
Mama’s fingers squeezed Olive’s cheeks. Olive’s back pushed against the chair.
The second grandma said, “I mean, she can’t feel pain, can she?”
“I can!” Mama said. “A contamination shutdown is a catastrophic failure. Recovery isn’t always possible. I need your help!”
A piece of the crust ball bulged from between Olive’s lips. She tried to stuff it back in, but Mama was in the way. Blobs of crust slurry in a line advanced from Olive’s mouth.
Mama squinted at the slurry. “Why is this gray? The crust should be brown.” Mama spoke louder than ever before when she was this close to Olive. “What did you eat?”
It’s only a castle wall with fairy dust, Olive tried to say, but the crust ball was in the way. Her consumables filter was at ninety-nine point eight percent full.
Mama’s lips pressed together, and their outer edges changed color. An artery bulged in her temple.
“Spit it out, Olive!” Mama yelled. “Mama Priority!”
“Mama Priority” was a high-level instruction, but it wasn’t the highest. Keeping Mama and the baby safe was more important. Olive tried to close her lips around the crust ball.
“Mother, hold her arms!” Mama said.
But the second grandma didn’t appear to be listening. She was looking toward the polycarbonate man on the gold-plated cross. She wouldn’t have been able to see Olive or Mama or the stream of crust slurry moving across the room.
Olive didn’t know how much fairy dust was required to make magic happen, but the amount from before hadn’t been enough. She shifted the air vent flows again. They caught the slurry stream and lifted it one point six meters above the floor. That was the perfect height.
The stream of slurry blobs connected with the back of the second grandma’s head. Olive couldn’t see if any fairy dust landed in the second grandma’s extra eyes, but sparkling gray slurry clung to the second grandma’s hair.
The second grandma’s hand rose up. Her fingers touched the back of her head and the crust slurry there. She turned away from the polycarbonate man and toward Olive. The lines around the second grandma’s lips had faded. The second grandma’s eyes, the ones in the front of her head, sparkled. Olive couldn’t determine if fairy dust had caused that.
The second grandma said, “Spit it out, Olive. Grandma Priority.”
That wasn’t in Olive’s programming, but she understood what it meant. “Grandma Priority” was “Double Mama Priority.” Olive did the calculation. “Grandma Priority” took precedence over all others.
Olive ejected the crust ball into Mama’s open hand.
“It’s poison, Mama,” Olive said.
Mama’s eyes pinched together like she was staring into the sun. “What?”
“I put fairy dust on the castle. My data didn’t indicate you’d attempt to eat it.”
The second grandma drew in a quick breath.
“You aren’t going to, are you, Mama?” Olive said.
Mama lifted the crust ball toward her face. One of Mama’s thumbs rubbed at the slurry. Grains of fairy dust were visible there. Mama’s eyes widened. Her mouth closed. She swallowed, and the sound was louder than anything else in the family trailer. Mama’s lips parted like she was going to speak, but no words came out.
“Did I make a critical error, Mama?” Olive said.
Mama took a deep breath. She exhaled.
“No,” Mama said. “Not even a small one. You did a great job.”
Olive didn’t know what job she’d done. “Do I have a new job?”
“You don’t need a job,” Mama said.
“If I don’t have a job, I have to go back to the reducer pile.”
“I’d never let that happen,” Mama said. She looked at the second grandma, whose hand pressed up against her mouth. “Would you, Mother? Would you send my daughter to the reducer pile?”
Blinking, the second grandma shook her head. A tear flew away from her cheek.
Mama turned back to Olive. “The reducer pile isn’t something you need to think about, Olive. Not ever.” Mama smiled. “I just remembered something. You do have a new job.”
“Can the baby do the job, too?” Olive said.
“No, it’s special just for you.”
“What’s my new job?”
Inside Olive’s heart, a thousand million fairies fluttered their wings.
About the Author
Andrea M. Pawley lives and writes in Washington D.C., where the Lincoln Memorial is her favorite monument, and she can’t get enough of the free art and history museums on the National Mall. In 2017, she attended Clarion West, which was an amazing experience.
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, and narrating stories is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a retired roller derby player and current small batch soap maker, for instance. Soaps and balms from StoryTime Soap Company are crafted while listening to audio fiction of all sorts. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.