Chapter Three: The Staircase

Nyssa walked a bit more, using her watch timer to mark ten minute increments along the line she drew to represent the boardwalk on the map, noting interesting landmarks in the distance. Off to her left, she saw a shark shaped like a whale, and an island that was also shaped like a whale, and a whale which was likewise shaped like a whale but which unaccountably flew through the clouds rather than the ocean. There was a ship, well out to sea, but though she called out to it, it was too far to hear her. Out to her right, she saw distant mesas, and widely-spaced trees the size of skyscrapers, and a purple silhouette of mountains beyond. She spotted a hot air balloon but it drifted higher and higher as she watched until she could barely see it at all.

Her feet were beginning to get rather tired, and she was starting to question if there was anywhere to sit down and take a rest along this boardwalk short of the uncomfortable-looking staircases, when she noticed a building up ahead. It looked a bit like a lighthouse, in shape, but it was gigantic - broad and high and, as it was clear daylight, not turned on at the moment. She'd known there had to be civilization somewhere about, because of the ship, the balloon, and the Cartographer. Not to mention the boardwalk. These things weren't natural occurrences and eventually she must meet someone who didn't want to sell her decorative maps. But it was still a relief to actually see the giant lighthouse, not too far off.

Nyssa broke into a jog for the last stretch, and presently reached the door to the lighthouse. Inside, there was a sign on a stand: one read "OBSERVATION DECK" (with an arrow pointing upward) and the second read "AND GIFT SHOP" with an arrow pointing to the right. Nyssa was of the opinion that one ought to visit a gift shop only after seeing the attraction it was about, so as to develop a taste for the souvenirs one might find in advance of being offered them. So she marched up the stairs.

There were quite a lot of stairs. There were no landings anywhere on the way, just endless switchback steps, dozens of them going one way and a turnaround and then dozens going the other way, over and over. When she had gone up four of these, she paused and took a rest, sitting elbows to knees at the bottom of one of the flights.

Footsteps approached behind her. "Hello there, I'm Grice. Are you going up or down?" asked a voice.

"I'm going up," said Nyssa.

"No you aren't," cried Grice. "You're sitting still."

"- I mean, I'm not moving right now," said Nyssa, "but between the two I'm definitely going up -"

"Liar!" it exclaimed, and at this Nyssa turned her head to see who was speaking. It appeared to be some kind of bird, but almost more like a puppet of a bird - it had a beak, and bird feet, but it was bright pink and there were rings of raised fluffy feathers all down its long flexible neck. Its wings were small and didn't look like they'd take it into the air, and it had beady little eyes. "I ask a simple question and you lie to me! How dare you!"

"I'm sorry," said Nyssa, wrong-footed. "What I meant was that I have been traveling up and I'm going to do more traveling up soon, but right now I've stopped to rest."

"And why didn't you take the elevator?" the bird said.

"- the what?" asked Nyssa, heart sinking.

"The elevator! Why didn't you take the elevator?"

"I didn't - know that there was one -" Nyssa got up and started back down the stairs, for there was nearly twice as much ahead of her as there was behind and the elevator sounded much easier.

"Where would you be without me?" Grice asked, following her down with its claws scritching against the painted stairs.

"I guess I'd still be sitting there resting," said Nyssa. "And I wouldn't have known about the elevator, so, uh, thank you."

"Of course, of course, of course," muttered the bird, not seeming to pay much attention to her.

Going down the stairs was much quicker than going up and soon they were back at the ground floor. There was the entrance to the gift shop - the glass was frosted, but Nyssa could make out racks of merchandise and a counter beyond, with nothing that looked like it might be an elevator. The rest of the ground floor was completely bare apart from the staircase they'd just descended.

"Where's the elevator?" Nyssa asked Grice.

"What elevator?" it asked, picking at some bit of debris between its claws with the tip of its beak.

"- the elevator that you told me there was!"

"I never said there was an elevator," the bird replied, sniffing and looking away from her haughtily. "You must have misunderstood."

"But you asked why I hadn't taken it!"

"So I did. What of it?" Grice replied.

"So that - that's the sort of thing you should only ask if - and you called me a liar!"

"Of course!" said Grice. "You lied! To me, an innocent stranger! The depravity! I, on the other hand, merely asked a simple question -intending only to help all the while -"

"But you didn't help me, you made me walk down all those stairs, and now if I want to get to the top I'll have to do it all over again!" Nyssa said.

"Made you! How dare you! That's simply not true at all! You decided to do that all by yourself and I never even dreamed of forcing or coercing or strongarming or compelling or otherwise exerting any kind of duress toward this outcome!"

"If you hadn't come along I'd be four flights further along than I am now."

"Well," began Grice, but at that moment through the front door burst a fuzzy creature, so dense with inky black fur that Nyssa couldn't see its eyes or any other features. The fuzzy thing flung itself at the bird, yelling wildly with a voice like an alarm bell, "That's enough! No more of you! Shoo, shoo!" and, in apparent dismay, the bird excused itself out through the gift shop, knocking down a display as it went.

"...thank you," said Nyssa.

"It was my pleasure," replied the fuzzy thing, fuzzing its way up to her and dipping a bit, almost like a curtsey. "It's my job, you know, to make sure no one accidentally wastes time. It's all well and good to drop a little bit of time here and there for rests, or if you can't bear to be in a hurry, but if you're not careful it'll get eaten up to no good end at all, by things like that."

"I can certainly see that," agreed Nyssa. "I didn't know anyone had a job like that."

"It's common enough!" said the fuzzy blob.

Now that Nyssa could get a good look at it, she could tell that it was made of a couple dozen smaller blobs, each fuzzed like a pompom, each strand all downy with more branches like a feather. Nyssa wanted to pet it. "What are you?" she asked.

"My name is Pomodoro," it said, "and I'm a half-hour."

"I've never met a half-hour before," said Nyssa. "I'm not sure there are any where I come from."

"Goodness, you poor things, then," said Pomodoro. "What about full hours? Or minutes? I'm made of minutes, thirty of them." One of its pompom components lifted a bit out of the mass of the rest of them.

"I mean," said Nyssa, "we have time, and clocks, and all that, but we don't meet them walking around. I mean moving around."

"How odd," Pomodoro said. "Well, I'm a half-hour, and eventually I will find my other half and we'll be a whole hour, and when there are enough of us all together we'll be a day and then we'll be too big to move around and we'll have to move into the Day Care Center, to meet up with other days and make weeks, and months, and years, and so on and on - we're hoping to make a forever, you know."

"A forever! Wow," said Nyssa, trying to think how big one of those would be if Pomodoro - about the size of a rabbit - was a half-hour. "What was the bird, do you know?"

"A nuisance," said Pomodoro firmly.

"It asked why I hadn't taken the elevator," said Nyssa, "but there isn't one at all."

"It's important to ask the right questions," Pomodoro nodded sagely. "Have you checked in the gift shop?"

"No, but I suppose I might as well. It doesn't look like it has an elevator."

"Just because one way to solve a problem isn't at hand doesn't mean you have to stop looking," said Pomodoro. "Talking about how few elevators there are won't get you any farther up the tower."

Nyssa nodded and pushed open the door to the gift shop.