Chapter 2:

The World Between and Below

City of Flowers

Iris wakes up with one arm tangled in her bedsheets and one leg hanging off the side of her bed. Her computer—a flat, blue projection of a screen hovering just centimetres in the air—remains turned on from last night's endeavours. She squints at the screen from her bed and sees webpages upon webpages of useless knowledge. One tab preview suggests that she had been searching up speedruns of a specific boss in a particularly difficult video game; another is a search engine result for the query, "interview examples architecture.” As Georgie had suggested she looked at.

Iris stares at the screen. The exemplar interviews are too professional to apply to a second-year interview, and the questions in particular contain too many specialised terms—she cannot parse any of it without losing the meaning entirely.

Georgie's words bounce around her head. "These questions are pretty dry."

Iris hasn't gotten anywhere closer to figuring out the secret to asking good questions within the last twenty-four hours. Groaning, she untwists herself from her blankets and slips her feet into her slippers. Focus, she tells herself. Do yourself a favour for once in your life and focus.

Gripping the edges of her table, she says, “Personal computer, initialise thought relay.”

The screen gently pulsates. Focus, she tells herself. Thoughts into words. Words into thoughts.

Letters scroll across the screen; at first they are legible, but as time goes on Iris’ focus begins to wane, and her mind grows foggier with every thought. Eventually, the letters fade into grey, illegible noise.

She swipes her hand through the projection, and the screen poofs into pixelated dust.

Just focus. What a joke. Her keyboard sits neatly in front of her screen. The buttons are bulky and yellowed by the oils on her skin, and the print on the ‘e’ key has been eroded away into obscurity. Sometimes, the ‘shift’ key sticks down when she presses it.

She opens up her essay, and finds that today, the keyboard has decided to give up on her entirely. Nobody makes keyboards like these anymore—they’re relics of the past, and it shows.

Nobody credible in Fontanelle, anyway.

She rips open the drawer under her computer and shoves a fistful of coins into her cardigan's pocket. Immediately upon touching the coins, her phone projects an interactive map into the air—the directions lead to the nearest bank. "Would you like to exchange your Old England coins for Credits?" her phone assistant asks.

Iris turns off her phone. She'll have to find some way to turn that function off, lest it pipes up in an inopportune moment. But—like her keyboard—that was an endeavour for later.

"Mum!" she calls back as she leaves the house. "I'll be back by five!"

Her mum responds with a sound that is vaguely Mandarin, and vaguely nothing at all. Iris doesn't stop to respond in the same way; the trams run on tight schedules, and hers is due to arrive at the closest stop in ten.

Once she is on the tram, she gazes out of the window. She watches bridges and wire-thin roads knot themselves among the skyscrapers, sees endless sheets of white concrete laid upon the streets. Everywhere she looks, there are at least a hundred more beetle-thick cars and platinum buildings waiting to greet her. It's numbing. Like being wrapped in a plastic cocoon.

The tram stops, the speakers beep, and most of the passengers get off. Only a few remain; Iris recognises none of them.

Only fools are regular frequenters of the tunnels. Fools and junkies.

The view shifts slowly. At first, there is the odd iron pump that is interwoven between the buildings. Then, like a Blumen that has outgrown its cage at the zoo, the rust spreads. It creeps through the pavement and stains the streetlamps, manifests itself in a dirty tangle of old world street wires that snake through open windows and hang off the curbs. The council has referred to this street on more than one occasion as "an electrical accident just waiting to happen."

And, hidden in the cavity between the buildings, is a shadow of a man. He is slamming a screwdriver into his arm—a hook that has been grafted onto his shoulder. It glitters, silver and blue, despite the dark Cirsium steel.

Iris sticks a hand into her pocket, where her phone still sits. She practices the motions: a thumb on her screen, a swipe left, a tap on the rightmost corner. A tiny defence daemon against any hostile cyborgs, one she’d created herself by throwing together bits of pre-existing open source code. She's never had to use it, but then again, she's never strayed too far from the entrance before either. Even Iris knows not to delve too deeply into the tunnels.

She and two others hop off once the tram stops. One passenger gives her a dry look; the other ignores her entirely.

The entrance to the tunnels is nestled between two buildings: a skyscraper that spears into the clouds, and an abandoned apartment complex. Some vendors have taken refuge inside and covered the windows with tarp.

Once Iris is further in, all she can smell is the coppery tang of Old English coins and burnt Cirsium. The antiques shop sits three storefronts in—it is easily identified by its dull tin signage and yellowing window displays.

The bell that hangs above the door twinkles as Iris walks in.

"Listen, for the last time, all sales are final," the shopkeeper, who Iris knows only as Bran, says. It takes a moment for Iris to realise that Bran is talking to someone else. Someone small enough to be hidden behind the obscenely large pile of rubber-buttoned telephones and battery powered toothbrushes.

Something clatters onto the counter. A young woman's voice cuts cleanly through the air. "I might as well have paid double for this shit, 'cuz it fucking came in two pieces."

"You knew what you were paying for. All sales are final—"

"No, you knew what I was paying for. I knew jack shit, because you welded it up with PVC and called it a day. Who the fuck even uses commercial plastic anymore?"

Iris wanders over to the other side of the store, where a rack of analog keyboards are on display. From here, she has a better view of the complaining customer: the girl is of fairly short stature, has white dyed hair, and her pink varsity jacket seems far too large for her frame. It is both odd and comforting to see someone so similar to Iris here.

But then the girl leans back to put a hand on her hip, and something glitters under the hem of her jacket. Iris instinctively reaches into her pocket to touch her phone.

Both of her legs are Cirsium prosthetics. The girl is a cyborg.

Probably shouldn't keep staring at them if I want to keep my head, Iris thinks. She turns her attention towards the keyboards again, but their altercation still manages to worm its way through her head.

"You like courting danger then, Miss Lilja?" The shopkeeper reaches under his counter in a manner that is not as subtle as he thinks himself to be. "So do I, demon."

The girl doesn't flinch. Instead, she chooses to run her fingers through her waist-length hair—only now does Iris realise that the girl's hair is not white, but an extremely light pink that occasionally steals the light from the air.

"They tell me people don't believe the stories about me anymore, but I'm inclined to believe that you've never even heard of them," she says. "It'd do you well to start reading up."

"Get out of my store—"

The girl drives her foot into the counter with such force that it shatters the wood into splinters. The entire store shudders, and Iris finds herself clutching at both a shelf for stability, and her phone—for ease of mind.

Then the girl says, slowly and carefully, "You wanna be a money grubbing Dog so bad? Rock up to their station, see if they've got any vacancies. Maybe they'll box you up with air conditioning if you're lucky."


She extends a palm, face up. "I'd like my money back. Please."

Without another word, Bran shoves his hands into his pockets and drops a fistful of coins into her hand. The girl doesn't even stop to count them as she makes her way out of the store. Her Cirsium prosthetics click click click into the ground.

And then she stops.

Iris's face feels numb, and her lungs go cold. She doesn't realise she's staring at the ground until she dares to glance upwards at the girl.

She's staring right at Iris. And—Iris regrets looking up now—her eyes are as jade as a forest, as deep as an ocean, and they pierce. Like an iron-tipped missile.

"Some advice?" she says, flipping her hair back over her shoulder. "There's a hardware store two blocks from here. This guy doesn't deserve your patronage."

Bran takes a quick stomp forward. "That's one of my regulars, you little bit—"

"You're selling garbage anyway, are you even losing any money?" The girl jerks her head at the exit. "Come on. I'll show you there."

Her Cirsium legs glitter. They rattle against one another as the girl shifts her weight; she is waiting.

"Th—thank you," says Iris, and she follows the girl with the deadly legs out of the store. "I'd like that."

They go deeper than Iris has ever dared to explore the road before.

Her guide offers her no name, no introduction. The buildings grow grimier as they weave through the crowds, and Iris is certain that she will, inevitably, lose the girl in the crowd. What name would she call for should she lose her? Lilja, Iris repeats in her head. Don't ever forget that her name is Lilja.

It is only when they arrive at the store that Iris begins to speak again.

“Thank you,” she mutters. She is unsure of where to look—whether to gaze directly into her forest-green eyes, or respectfully at her legs, weapons honed beyond a homebrewed disabler. Both seem inappropriate.

“Hey. Hey!” Lilja snaps her fingers in front of Iris’ face. “Look at me when I talk to you, okay? It’s obvious you belong upstairs, and not in the tunnels. After you get whatever artsy supplies you need for your drug-fueled art projects from the hardware store, I’m taking you back out.”

Stunned, all Iris can say is, “I come to the tunnels often.”

A laugh. “No, you don't. A day trip every month-ish isn't often."

Lilja shoves Iris towards the doors, and they slide open automatically. The innards of the store are poorly lit, but even Iris sees the glitter of Cirsium writhing in the dead light.

She swallows and walks in. One customer is rattling his hand through a crate of springs and bolts. When his hand resurfaces, there is steel where flesh should be.

She turns around and leaves the store. Lilja has already turned around, but Iris manages to catch up to her.

The smaller girl turns. "...What?"

"Could—could you come in? With me, I mean."

A snort. "I thought you said you frequented the tunnels often."

Iris says nothing, but she continues to hold onto Lilja by the hem of her jacket.


The store truly feels much safer with Lilja by her side. Iris picks out a stark white keyboard that has all of its keys intact and functioning, while Lilja stands behind her, arms folded, expression disappointed.

When they leave the store, Lilja speaks with scorn in her voice. "So, spill it. Are you a tongue? Do you pose as a virgin willing to give her body when they stop you at the borders, or do you bribe them with coins? You had a lot back there, you know. I heard all of them jangling together from where I was standing."


"Do you write those things, uh—" The shorter girl taps her chin in mock thought. "—Poh-ims. Poems? Do you write them on your little CRT monitors? You like to spend money on keyboards, don't you? It gives you inspiration."

"I'm not one of them," Iris grits out. "I'm not a tongue. I'm a student."

"True. I'm sorry—tongues wouldn't dress as nicely as you. You look like you come from money. Real money."

"What's your problem?" asks Iris. She regrets her words immediately.

"I just want to know what a nice, pretty girl like you wants a keyboard for, because I'm starting to think that you actually need it."

A blush races across her cheeks. "I don't need it."

"You were desperate enough to ask me, a cripple with scary weapons for legs, to escort you through the store. You know what that means? It means you're scared. But desperate." Lilja circles around Iris like a hawk. "And most rich girls? They aren't desperate."

Iris holds Lilja's gaze for far, far too long. She could stare into those eyes for years, become lost in them as lost children in forests do. She can’t tell what this girl is thinking. Every question, every answer arrives unexpectedly. She does not like how Lilja can ask and ask and know what it is that makes Iris Iris. She could use some of that insight in her interviews.

Even without the Cirsium, Lilja is dangerous.

The shorter girl barks a wild laugh. "Ok, ok, calm down. Just fucking with you." She turns, and her pastel hair fans out like a dress. "I couldn't care less about you and where you come from. Get out and don't come back, girl, if you know what's good for you."

And then she leaves. It takes a moment for Iris to realise that she has arrived at the entrance, and that the next tram is due to arrive within the minute.

On the way back home, Iris clutches her keyboard between her frail, thin arms. Ah, yes. Her assignment.

She might have an idea.