Chapter Seventeen: The Democracy

It took only fifteen minutes to travel by curiosipede from the dome to Percepolis, and for much of that time they could see the city, growing as they approached. Its buildings and layout were very unlike those in Ference. Instead of being mostly white, it was a riot of color and pattern, every building a different shape. Skyscrapers swayed slightly in the high wind, glittering silver and blue; twisty towers wrapped in outdoor staircases had ribbons dangling from their railings and green or orange or yellow paint catching the sunlight.

The place wasn't fenced at all; in fact, it was surrounded by farms and suburban houses that gave way smoothly to urban center. The farms were odd - Nyssa didn't see any vast rows of corn or fields of wheat. They were more like gardens, with planters and furrows full of manageable numbers of various plants and each one with a label sticking out of the ground as though it were the care instructions in a nursery. She passed a set of beehives labeled A through G, each with a clipboard resting on top of its structure, and a group of three chicken coops with signage indicating that they were called experimental coop A, experimental coop B, and control coop.

The houses were strange too, if less so. Each little suburban neighborhood of them was different, but the houses in each were all identical: a cluster of wood-shingled two-stories around a cul-de-sac, a row of brick townhomes, a curving branch off the main road sporting a half-dozen widely-spaced bungalows made of cob and thatched in straw. The neighborhoods had names, and confusing names at that: "The Effect of Skylights on Mood". "Soundproofing Test Fifteen-B." "The Interaction of the Absence of Stairs with Occupant Mobility".

Percepolis proper was eclectic on a building to building basis and in more ways besides. Nyssa whizzed past places advertising themselves as laboratories, research hospitals, experimental schools, think tanks, and a grocery store you were only supposed to shop at if your last name began with a letter that was L or later in the alphabet. She saw fourteen distinct flags all of which seemed to be trying to be the flag of Percepolis; most had a motif of one or more eyes on them, but there was also one emblazoned with a microscope, one featuring a sort of graph with speckles instead of lines on it, and a flag that blurred through all the colors of the rainbow from red on the left through violet on the right. She saw pedestrians wearing bizarre glasses with prisms on the front, food trucks that wouldn't let customers order a meal and insisted on giving them randomly chosen sandwich ingredients and receiving payment in reviews, and a person with two identical puppies, except one of them was shaved close to the skin and the other was so shaggy its hair brushed the street.

Nyssa rolled up to a likely-looking woman sitting on a park bench, who appeared to be taking notes on the behavior of nearby squirrels. "Excuse me," she said. "I'd like to talk to your King, can you tell me where to find him?"

"We haven't got a king," replied the woman, throwing a peanut squirrelward and watching intently as the squirrels squabbled over it.

"- really?" said Nyssa. "But the Princess has a father, right - I was told -"

"Oh, yes, the Princess's father lives here," agreed the woman, clicking her tongue as one of the squirrels triumphed and ran up a tree. "But he's not a king."

"But he's the Queen's ex-husband and the - is he a prince?" asked Nyssa.

"No, no. He was a King back then, but now Percepolis is a democracy," said the woman.

"Oh. So who would I talk to about getting help with, um, un-banishing the Princess?" Nyssa said.

"The Precedent," said the woman. "He lives in the Presidence, which is just up Falsifiaboulevard." She pointed. "The cross-street is Replication Road, but it's easy to miss, so keep an eye out for Theory Thoroughfare and you'll know you've gone right by it."

"Thank you," said Nyssa, and she proceeded. She did indeed completely miss Replication Road and had to turn around at the Thoroughfare. Then she successfully located the Presidence, which looked an awful lot like a castle that had been retrofitted and painted red and purple. A post with signs pointing in different directions offered routes to the Main Entrance, the Courtyard of Public Opinion, and the Visitor's Center. She followed the last arrow.

"Hello!" said the clerk at the Visitor's Center. "My name is Inspector Poll. How can I help you today?"

"Hello, my name's Nyssa," said Nyssa. "I'd like to talk to the Precedent."

"I see. I'll need you to answer a few questions and complete a few other tasks first," said Inspector Poll.

"All right," said Nyssa.

"Excellent. I'll need your name, your date of birth, your address, your height and weight, your number of siblings and whether any of them have been here in the past, a few facts about your medical history, a list of the schools you have attended, your grades -"

"I don't go to school," said Nyssa.

"Then I will need to know what other form of education you are pursuing, and with whom, and your state of legal compliance with the relevant jurisdiction, and then I need you to take an assessment test -"

"This sounds like a lot," said Nyssa.

"And then I need you to turn all the pegs in this board full of pegs upside down and put them back in their holes, and then I need you to wait for someone else to come along to pair off with you and I can explain the rules of those tasks at that time, and then I'm going to need you to serve as a confederate in a child psychology study - don't worry, it's very easy, all you have to do is not be someone's parents and enter a room -"

"I just want to talk to the Precedent!" exclaimed Nyssa. "I don't want to do all this other stuff."

"Oh," said Inspector Poll. "All right. You go down that hallway and take the second door on your left."

"Thank you," said Nyssa, and she followed these directions.

When she took her second left, it led to a little room with a table and a chair on which was a board full of pegs and a slip of paper reading "Some Experiments May Involve Deception".

Nyssa marched right back out and slammed the door and wandered the former castle on her own. She found a room full of plants under different kinds of lights. She found a chemistry lab with things bubbling and dissolving and precipitating. She found a room with a pendulum full of sand, making patterns on the floor; she found a room with strangely shaped walls in which she could hear no sound. She found a completely ordinary closet with brooms and mops and buckets and dustpans.

At length, when her feet were getting tired and she was no longer sure she would be able to find her way back out of the Presidence at all, she found a door labeled "Political Experiments". She was not sure what that meant but was pretty sure that "political" meant "having to do with Presidents, and presumably also Precedents" and so she pushed it open.

Instead of anything like a throne room or even an office, she found a conference room, with a big table and many office chairs arranged around it. In each chair was a person, although one of those people was a plant-creature and one of them was a mongoose. They all stared at Nyssa.

"Um," said Nyssa, "excuse me, but is one of you the Precedent?"

"He's not in the Presidence at the moment," said the mongoose. "I believe he took the day off. Excuse me, who are you? Are you supposed to be in this wing?"

Nyssa elected not to answer that question; instead she shut the door and jogged down the hall. "Took the day off!" she said. "Why, he could be anywhere. Do you think the curiosipede can find him?"

"It can't hurt to try," opined Pomodoro, and after several false turns and nearly crashing into a page (that walked the halls on its corners), they found a side exit, got back on the curiosipede's bench, and went looking.