Our City – the first ever City on the world we were already calling Progenitor, or Origin – was an exciting place to live, but very different, I have learnt, to the cities built by humans and their ilk. As Flowers, our natural environment was outside, under the sky, and that informed everything we built.
The oldest heart of the City was of course the wooden Ship, now excavated and intensely studied. Around it, spilling down the sides of the Hill, stood the Works – dozens of huts and sheds where Hornbeam and his team explored the Big Thorn's latest translations, redesigned the machines to work for us Flowers, and build their prototypes.
Unfortunately, the heavy industrialisation – for us, at least – made the Works an unappealing place to live for any but the most dedicated engineers. Down on the plains, upwind of the Works, we built the Garden – our living space, training area, and relaxation zone all in one. Its buildings were light compared to the thick-walled houses of the Works, but they had open sides, and they breathed.
The two halves of the City, the Garden and the Works, were practically separate settlements. In the Works, the Sunflower Official and his Firstborn ruled absolutely, devoting everything to the task of understanding the Ship and its precious cargo. Many of the Engineers worked for free, living and resting in the Works. The others, those who spent their nights in the Garden, were 'paid' in machines – anything they built, they were permitted to take down into the Garden.
The Garden itself was an entirely different world. Run by the civilian government, it boasted shops, bars, private property – an economy. Those Flowers who travelled to the Works to labour were viewed as an elite, and they could guarantee that the machines they brought home would sell for a high price. In contrast, the Firstborn and Engineers, holed up in the Works, were barely thought of at all.
In one of the less-desirable areas of the Garden, close to the foot of the Hill, and on the direct line between the Works and the heart of the civilian City, was a small pond. It was stagnant, slightly polluted, and in shadow for nearly half the day, but it was there that the Floating Hyacinth plied its trade.
It was a broker – a Flower who bought machines from returning Plants, then stored them until there was a shortage or an urgent need. The Hyacinth made a profit, the Engineers didn't have to carry their work all the way home, and the City knew it could access any machine at any time – it was a winning situation for everyone.
The Floating Hyacinth whirled in place as something – no, someone – hit the water behind it. It was a mind the Hyacinth had never encountered before, and the Plant it belonged to looked like… well, a hollow sphere, basically.
Can I help you? the Hyacinth asked. It did its best to be polite – after all, this… thing might be a customer.
What? Ha! It worked! the Plant exclaimed. Stand back, please – second arrival in four… three…
The newcomer pulled itself onto the bank, and the Hyacinth floated over to the far side of the pond – then practically jumped out onto dry land as a new mind suddenly blazed into existence. A Plant appeared in midair above the pond, seeming to hang for a moment – long enough for the Hyacinth to identify it as some form of Rose Bush – and then splashed down hard.
Eleven! the first Plant called. It worked! We're at the bottom of the Hill – almost spot-on!
Of course it worked, Thirty-Seven, the Rose Bush sniffed, dragging itself out of the water. Hornbeam said it would.
Hornbeam said we could burn rocks to make the machines go, the other Plant retorted. I tend to take his words with a heap of fertilizer.
But… but… The Floating Hyacinth had recovered enough of its balance to speak. How did you do that? That was, it was magic, it was-
Plothole, the Rose Bush said with a shrug. You've heard of them, I assume.
Well, of course! There's no need to be insulting. But… The Floating Hyacinth shrugged its leaves. My understanding was that the space-tunnel plotholes are usually tiny, and only last a fraction of a standard time partition besides. Did you… have you learnt to make plotholes? It thought for a moment. And if so, why did you choose my pond to land in?
Make them? The first Plant laughed. Not quite yet – though you bet Hornbeam's working on it. But this is more valuable – we can hold them open, and-
I'm not really sure we should be sharing this, the Rose Bush interrupted.
Eleven, you're a real spoilsport. And why not? We're not actually a separate City to the Garden, you know.
I still don't think it's wise, the Rose Bush said firmly, its white flowers folding closed. This is cutting-edge research.
… maybe you're right, the other Plant admitted. But it won't be for long… okay, how about this. Floating Hyacinth?
You know me? the Hyacinth wondered, but then made the connection. Oh, you're the Weeds – Firstborn. I guess that's one of your powers.
Powers? The Rose Bush – Weed-Eleven - snorted. Hardly that.
What else would you call having abilities most Flowers don't? The Hyacinth waved a frond. I've not met many Firstborn, but you're all spooky.
We can leave the metaphysical discussions for later, Weed-Thirty-Seven cut in. We have to get back and report. So, Floating Hyacinth: would you like to see something really impressive?
Depends, the Hyacinth replied. Will it involve you messing up my pond some more?
Almost certainly not.
Then yes, I suppose.
Weed-Thirty-Seven's branches twitched with delight. Brilliant. Then come up to the Plaza at sunrise tomorrow. We should have it set up by then.
The Plaza – another of the single-capitalised-noun-named locations that were so popular on Origin – was the open space on the summit of the Hill (see what I mean?). The low building which covered the excavation pit of the Ship was at the Plaza's centre, but the rest of the space was left as bare earth, a resting place for the Plants of the Works. It wasn't somewhere the Floating Hyacinth had ever visited before – but at least, being the top of the Hill, it was easy to find.
When the Hyacinth reached the Plaza, the sun was just peeking over the tiled roofs of the Works. There was a bustle of activity at one end of the paved space, which the Hyacinth headed towards. As it approached, it heard the voice of the Sunflower Official:
… can't be 'broken', we don't even have the parts we'd need to make another one. If you can't fix it, the program will be set back weeks!
Then perhaps that is the way it shall be, a sonorous voice replied – Hornbeam, the First Engineer. It may be beyond my capacity to repair.
Well, improve your capacity, the SO snapped, and by now the Hyacinth was close enough to see his petals immediately fold inwards in contrition. Sorry. But we're so close…
The Hyacinth slipped between two Weeds and reached its mind out to the machine on the ground. The metal box felt somehow familiar, if you ignored the dark hole in the centre where some component had disconnected from the mental pathways. In fact, it was…
Is that a plothole detector? the broker asked. There was instant silence, and all the Plants turned to face it. The Hyacinth scanned them nervously until it spotted Weed-Thirty-Seven. It's like the one you must have used earlier, no?
It is the one we used earlier, the Weed clarified. More to the point, it's the only one we have. They're exceptionally tricky to make.
And now it's broken, put in a Thorn Bush of some description. The SO's right – this is going to put us weeks behind.
Can't you just use the prototype? the Hyacinth asked.
There was a snort from a Daisy – the Hyacinth thought it was the Marquis de Sod. Certainly – if it hadn't been accidentally invented by a Downlander, and if someone's policy wasn't that Flowers could take their work home with them. Don't you think we might have thought of that?
Well, yes, the Floating Hyacinth agreed, but you probably don't know that the Flower who made it sold the prototype on to me. No-one's had any need of it yet, but I've kept it in storage, and-
We need that detector! the Sunflower Official cut it off. Captain Dandy – send your fastest Weeds to collect it. But carefully!
Hang on! The Hyacinth shuffled out of the way as a Dandelion started issuing orders. I meant I'd sell it to you, not that you could just take it.
The Sunflower Official crossed the circle to stand next to the Hyacinth. Floating Hyacinth, he said, you are about to see history made. Believe me, before this is done, there will be 'payment' enough to change your life.
I… see. The Floating Hyacinth didn't see at all – but it wasn't about to argue with the First Flower.
Before very long had passed, Weed-Thirty-Seven came tumbling (that was the only word for its method of locomotion) back up the Hill, the detector clutched in its branches. Hornbeam leant over the Weed, and the Hyacinth felt his mind stretching out.
The design is somewhat simpler, the Tree mused, and it lacks some of the improvements we have since implemented, but… yes. It will suffice.
The Engineers set to work with an energy the Hyacinth found almost frightening. The sun was still low enough in the sky to cast long shadows in the Plaza when the Flowers stood back and pronounced their work complete. Even the Hyacinth, untrained though it was, could feel the low-intensity mental signal from the detector - now attached to a massive framework, like a free-standing doorway.
Of course, sensing it was a far cry from knowing what it meant.
And now, the Sunflower Official said, we wait.
The Hyacinth, along with most of the other Flowers, sunk its roots into the soil – but lightly. There was no telling what these strangely fascinating (and just plain strange) Engineers might be up to; it was best to be prepared to flee.
The Sun traced its gentle course towards the zenith of the sky, and the Flowers waited.
And waited, until at last there was a sudden mental spike, the signal from the detector going haywire, and the Floating Hyacinth felt Hornbeam's mind lash out, quick and precise.
No-one spoke, as the standard time partitions stretched out – and then Hornbeam nodded his great canopy, and the Sunflower Official stepped forward, passed through the door-like frame, and emerged on the far side of the Plaza.
The crowd, as they say, went wild.