Chapter Five: The Observation Deck

There were many people in this room, all at least as human as the Cartographer and not birds or half-hours. Most of them were looking out the windows through telescopes and binoculars that were stationed all around. Some had, additionally or instead, ear trumpets with gears and dials all over them sticking out of their ears, and they twiddled the dials and clicked the gears with looks of deep concentration. One person was wearing a bulky navy-blue outfit that covered their entire body including their face, held on with velcro and buckles and snaps. Someone was diligently chewing on what looked like an enormous wad of gum. Another person had something clear and nose-shaped over their nose, and had their eyes scrunched shut and their mouth twisted thoughtfully.

Only one person was not using any such apparatus, and this one was circling the room, pausing to murmur and listen to each of the room's occupants. She'd stop between people to write things down on a yellow legal pad attached to a clipboard, with a long plumed pen, which was a brilliant white that matched her lab coat. Eventually, while Nyssa waited on the curiosipede, the labcoated woman made her way towards her.

"Good afternoon," she said, "I'm the Supervisor, welcome to the Observation Deck. Names?"

"Nyssa," said Nyssa, and "Pomodoro," said Pomodoro. The Supervisor wrote these facts down. Nyssa craned her neck a little to get a look at the yellow legal pad; the names were recorded under a boxed paragraph written in dense alphanumeric codes, like automatically generated passwords, and Nyssa could not make heads or tails of it.

"Thank you," said the Supervisor. "Are you here to see? There's a bit of a wait to see."

"Through the - telescopes and binoculars?" asked Nyssa, as in fact these were all taken.

"Yes, that's right. But you're more than welcome to smell, and I have the equipment left for most other senses too. However, the kinestheticator is broken, the refrigeroven has been running humid - and the proprioceptor isn't configured for you," she added to Pomodoro.

"That's quite all right," Pomodoro assured her.

"I actually came up here to ask if I could buy this curiosipede," said Nyssa.

"Of course not!" said the Supervisor.

"- why not?" asked Nyssa. "Is it that expensive?"

"I don't know how much money you have, so I couldn't reasonably be comparing it with a price," said the Supervisor. "Well, I suppose I could be drawing conclusions based on your appearance and guessing how much money you might have, but I've never seen anyone quite like you before, so I've no idea what I'd be guessing. The reason you can't buy it is that it's from the gift shop."

"I don't understand," said Nyssa.

"The gift shop, the gift shop!" said the Supervisor. "You mustn't expect to buy things at a gift shop, why, that's completely out of the spirit of gift-giving. A fine holiday that would be, if you came up with a gift for someone and then told them it would be twelve dollars and forty-seven cents. Imagine the resentful glares over your festive meal and under your festive decorations! Their wariness as they ate their seasonal dessert, wondering if you would add a gratuity for your cake-cutting services! No, no, you don't buy gifts."

"Um," said Nyssa. "Where I'm from, at a gift shop you can buy things to then give to other people."

"What a peculiar idea," said the Supervisor. "Peculiar indeed. Do you want to give this to another person?"

"No, actually," admitted Nyssa.

"Then you cannot buy it at a gift shop!" declared the Supervisor. "You absolutely cannot! Instead you must keep it for yourself with my compliments and use it well and never fear that your ownership of a curiosipede will come with some cost to you. No, my dear, curiosipedes are free. You may desire to know things and let that carry you hither and yon for zero dollars and zero cents."

"- thank you!" said Nyssa, smiling. "Thank you so much!"

"Of course!" said the Supervisor. "Now, would you like to observe anything? This is the Observation Deck, after all."

"What is there to observe?" asked Nyssa.

"Sights and sounds! Smells and tastes! The full complement of skin-based sensations! Anything you can observe, you can do it here," said the Supervisor.

"Oh. So if I wanted to - taste chocolate, I'd get a gum thing like he's chewing over there -"

"That's right! The Observation Deck has the finest Knewing Gum. It will find a taste like the one you're looking for, and fetch it from wherever it may hide. Even if you've never had chocolate before, once you try the gum looking for it, you'll knew just what it's like."

"But the telescopes just point out around the sea and what's nearby here, right?"

"On the contrary! Our telescopes and binoculars are the highest-end Cherry Peeker models and will let you look for whatever you want, wherever it might be. It was originally designed for looking at cherry blossoms - they're very pretty and remain a popular option - but you can look at landscapes and portraits, colors and shapes, anything you can think of!"

"So they just make stuff up to show you?"

"Oh no!" said the Supervisor, sounding scandalized. "No, never, on my honor as Supervisor! All our equipment here is real observational equipment. It will find a real thing that's just what you're looking for. If you're looking for a circle, it will find you a real circle. If you're after a cat to pet, it will find you a real cat and demonstrate just what its fur feels like. If you want to hear bells, you shall! Roses? They're yours! You can even rent time in our complete rig - after we've repaired the ones for the less popular senses - and experience being in any composite scene you can imagine."

"Composite?" asked Nyssa.

"Made up of many different parts. You could see the circle and feel the cat and hear the bells and smell the roses all at once, even if those things are oceans away from one another."

"I see," Nyssa said, "thank you for explaining."

"We used to also have some Medium of Exchange," said the Supervisor, "for translating one thing into another, so you could taste sights and hear smells and so on, but unfortunately the stuff is terribly expensive and we've had a reduced operating budget in recent years."

"Why's that?" asked Nyssa. The place didn't sound very useful to her, at least not now - she could see how it would be to someone who knew more things to look for, but she didn't know enough to begin with, so she'd just look at pretty things and taste tasty things and Pomodoro would probably nudge her for wasting time. Maybe she'd come back when she knew more about what to look for, and she could find out what hippos looked like or how stars sounded when she'd learned enough about them for that to be interesting.

"The Observation Deck used to be funded by the Princess of the Realm, Wonder," the Supervisor replied. "It was one of her pet projects. She commissioned so much research here! Botanists would look at plants, and safely taste even the poisonous ones. Zoologists would touch animals that would have savaged them in real life. Geologists listened to the center of the earth! Chemists smelled volcanoes! Oh, it was a glorious time!"

"Can't people do those things now?" asked Nyssa.

"Oh, of course, if they wish," said the Supervisor. "But, well, when the Princess went away it affected a lot of things. There's less time, less money - especially if you think those are the same thing - there's less interest. People come to entertain themselves, now, and in the very bad months they come to have arguments."

"Arguments can be fine things," said Pomodoro.

"Oh, not these ones," shuddered the Supervisor. "They'll come and take a binoculars here and a telescope beside it and scream at each other that they're looking at the wrong things, you know, they'll find example after example and insist that this proves it, they win, and of course the other has found an example of their own and doesn't think that settles it at all. They'll tie up the equipment for hours. And I don't have enough other sources to turn them away, these days."

"I'm sorry," said Nyssa.

"It's hardly your fault, my dear. It's just that the Princess has gone," the Supervisor sighed. "Nothing's been the same since."

"Could you look at her through the telescopes?"

"No. The Princess has been hidden away in the Obfuscatory Mists, high in the Ivory Tower, where she cannot communicate with the world in any way. Even my telescopes are not powerful enough to see her, nor can my ear-trumpets hear her, and so on."

"Why was she trapped there?"

"Oh, I'm afraid I don't know," said the Supervisor. "But you've gotten your curiosipede there very wound up. I'm sure it will help you find out, if you really want to see what you can learn."

And indeed, on its wheels, hidden against the axle to either side of the bench, the curiosipede had a sort of tension mechanism. This feature, since Nyssa was not yet prepared to leave the Observation Deck, had scrunched itself down in great excitement with all of her interest and inquiry, and it looked ready to fling itself over miles of hills and through acres of mud to get her to where she could find her next answer.

"But where will I go?" asked Nyssa. "I'm sure I can ask someone, when I get there, but in case I run out of things to be curious about before I arrive and have to get off and push, I'd like to know where to ask for directions to."

"Well, I'd suggest to the next island east of here; once you cross the bridge, you'll be in Ference," advised the Supervisor.

"This is an island?"

"One of many in the Bay," the Supervisor replied.

"Is the -"

"Oh, don't tease the poor curiosipede," said Pomodoro, hopping up onto the bench beside her. "Come on, Nyssa, let's go!"

And Nyssa giggled, and nodded, and the curiosipede spun dizzily and leapt out the window, racing like an excitable elevator down to the foot of the tower and charging onto a road that led inland, crunching over gravel and carrying both girl and half-hour into the late morning sun.