Karla Becker had a habit of talking to her crystals as she programmed them. The constant, indiscernible chatter earned her the furthest workstation from the door and stares from her coworkers. She didn’t mind. When she worked, the world beyond her crystals faded. Completely immersed, she didn’t notice Emerson standing in her cubicle until he stood directly behind her.
“Becker, I need to…”
The crystal Karla held—somewhere between purple and green, like a darkening bruise—skidded out of her hand and across her station. It clinked as it hit two other finger-sized crystals, and Karla cut off Emerson off with a swear.
“Emerson, can’t you knock?” The fallen crystal faded to obsidian black, and its bruising seeped into the two crystals it touched.
“Are those infected now?” He nodded at the crystals, all three black and useless.
“They are.” Sweeping the crystals into the center of her workstation, she took the metal probes off the one she had dropped. “What did you need?”
“I came to talk to you about this. It’s got to stop.”
She traced the edges of a crystal. Several large chips on each smooth face made it unusable for anything other than her experiments. Perfect crystals, when programmed to the correct frequencies, could dig through the caverns, extracting minerals and expanding to create rooms or entire buildings. This one wouldn’t even be able to make non-responsive furniture. “This is important work, and you know it.”
He picked up a crystal and held it close to his eye as he turned it over. The light reflected off the glossy surface, but beneath the sheen, the structure of the crystal had disappeared into inky oblivion.
“What I know is this obsession will get you fired.”
She turned to face him. “Have you heard something?”
He placed a hand on her tense shoulder and despite herself she leaned into the touch. “I’ve more than heard. I’ve been told. This is your last warning, Becker. You’ve gotten a lot of leeway because of your breakthrough, but that was almost two years ago. You can’t ride that success forever. They don’t want you wasting time on this project, and they don’t want you destroying any more crystals.”
“I don’t use viable crystals.” She shrugged his hand away.
“Doesn’t matter. They want it to stop. It’s time to get back to real work. You’re an amazing architect. Go back to that, not whatever this is.”
“Just because it can’t be marketed and sold,” Karla grumbled, “They don’t understand.”
His eyes softened and Karla almost told him, but her lips refused to move. Even Emerson wouldn’t believe her. Not if she told him the crystals were alive.
Like every day in the underground city of New Ironwood, the weather was perfect, the crystal architecture immaculate. The high ceiling of the atrium was the pale yellow of sparkling wine, the columns dusted with a pinch of pink. Karla rushed across the open space, ignoring the imported trees, keeping her head down and navigating away from groups of people by avoiding their colorful slippers.
Looking up wouldn’t make a difference. Almost all of them were deep into their alternative realities, talking with friends on different levels, playing immersive games. No one would have noticed she was there, seen her tear-streaked face, or asked what was wrong.
Once she got to the small tunnel on the other side of the cavern, she dragged her fingertips along the smooth, cool surface of the crystal walls that curved up into the ceiling. She would miss the curated colors of her city: the iridescent shimmering of her pink flat, the white of her laboratory. She wouldn’t have chosen such a dull gray for the entrance tunnel. But Karla didn’t choose the colors. She had just made it possible for the people who did.
When she discovered how to separate rooms from the central color grid, people called her an artist. Because of her, citizens could set one room to green while another shimmered in sea-foam blue. That’s the kind of breakthrough her employers demanded. Correction. Former employers.
“Name?” The gate attendant barely looked up from his tablet where he pushed tiny colored dots together into shapes.
“Karla Becker.” She said her name quietly.
The attendant’s stubby finger stopped in the middle of a move. The screen flashed a bright red warning as he peeled his eyes from the game, losing a life to assess Karla’s face. With Connect living in everyone’s brain, linking them to the people they wanted to be with instead of the ones they were forced to be near, eye contact with strangers was a rarity. She blushed under the gate attendant’s scrutiny.
“You’re moving out?” He nodded at the self-driving pallet humming behind her. It was stacked with plastic bins and awaiting its next order.
“But you’re our artist!” He waved at the walls, the podium, and the floor—all a dull gray to match the ancient concrete of the Ironwood tunnel.
The rogue muscle at the back of her jaw—the one that kept sending her to the dentist—pulled tight. He claimed her as if he knew her, as if she belonged to the city just because the results of her equations covered their walls. But they didn’t value her work enough to let her keep her job at the architectural center or her flat in the underground city.
She let his objection drop between them. She was done reassuring people in New Ironwood.
The Ironwood tunnel, connecting the underground city to its namesake above ground, was from the days before crystal architecture. A layer of grime coated the concrete walls with streaks of black. The train lurched out of the tunnel, its slow rhythm loosening the muscle in her jaw.
No longer sheltered by the crystal caverns of New Ironwood, Karla cowered against the pleather seat. Orange-gray clouds stretched across the open sky.
The train stopped at the poorly maintained station. With an expert twitch of her mind, Karla accessed her Connect and commanded her pallet to follow her off the train. She pulled up a map and turned on the navigation to the address the real estate agent had sent her.
A path, Karla’s favorite shade of dark purple with lilac specks, lit up in front of her. Trying to ignore the cracked pavement, Karla followed the sparkles. The visual overlay smoothed the rough edges of the neglected city, softening reality.
“You’re late.” A clipped voice forced Karla to look up just as her Connect informed her she had arrived at Tesla Coffee Shop. She parked the pallet next to the patio and flicked off the navigation. The purple path vanished, leaving only the dismal concrete and a cafe filled with people dressed in layered, inefficient fabrics with folds and pleats, buckles and chains. The depressing buildings seemed to grow out of the ground. No, not grow. They were stacked on top and a breath away from crumbling back to it.
The woman staring at her was sporting the pragmatic fashion of New Ironwood. The neck-to-ankle, skin-tight therm suit put Karla at ease. Her blonde hair was pinned in a tight bun, ankle-high leather boots her only extravagance. Of course slippers wouldn’t provide enough protection against the roughness of the outer city.
The blonde’s eyes seemed to stroke Karla’s face as she waited. Karla flushed beneath the scrutiny. But looking around, the other patrons of the cafe shared a similar intimacy. They exchanged words and thoughts while looking right at each other. The only person who had looked at Karla that way before was Emerson—once when they had slept together and again when he had fired her. The woman’s attention was steady, as if she actually cared what Karla would say or do next. Drawn in by the promise of her gaze, Karla leaned closer to the blonde.
“I’m Karla Becker.” Karla offered her hand to the woman, wondering if her name held as much weight outside the crystal city. For the first time, she hoped it did. Part of her wanted to keep the woman’s eyes on her.
After a brief handshake, the woman sat at the table, bringing a tablet to life with her fingerprint. “I’m Tybee. Let’s find you an apartment, shall we?”
Tybee tapped a picture of Karla on the screen. Emerson had taken it years ago, while Karla stood proudly in the center of her lab, surrounded by the latest crystal tech—machines she had helped tweak and improve and would never have access to again. The picture faded, replaced by a gallery of drab rooms, each of them with peeling paint, cracked tiling, and suspicious gray growths in the corners. Karla’s eyes darted over the rooms and back to Tybee’s perfectly painted lips.
“Those are my options?”
“I’m afraid so.” Tybee didn’t even try to sound optimistic. “You’re on Basic Income now. You qualify for a basic apartment, either a studio or a small one bedroom. If you care about quality, start with the smaller units.”
“It doesn’t matter. Just pick one for me.” Karla’s room in New Ironwood had been small, too, but beautiful in a way concrete could never compete with.
Tybee’s professionalism softened, and she reached across the table to touch the back of Karla’s hand. Karla swallowed to keep her breath from quickening.
“It’s not so bad out here,” Tybee said, “Many people on Basic Income sublet rooms in better apartments from those earning full incomes.”
Tybee withdrew her fingers and tapped on her tablet to show Karla a picture of a neat bedroom, bathed in orangish-brown sunlight. It was clean and painted a soft cream color.
“This is my spare room.”
Karla’s plastic bins ended up in Tybee’s spare room, and a week later her body landed in Tybee’s bed, clinging to Tybee like a lifeboat in a wild sea. After, Tybee laid her head on Karla’s shoulder and snuggled into her.
Karla was struck by their nakedness. Just skin and racing energy. She waited for Tybee to flip on her Connect, to escape the intimacy and vulnerability the way Emerson had.
But Tybee didn’t reach for her implant. Instead she murmured, “You’re an artist.”
For once Karla didn’t shudder under the title. “That’s what everyone says. But I’m just an architect. All math and equations, no real imagination.”
Tybee closed Karla’s hand in her own, holding it above her lazy beating heart. “No, I’ve felt it. I know.”
An old desk, made from pressed particle-board and coated in light brown laminate, sat next to the bed in Karla’s new room. She opened a case and let her fingertip trace the shape of the large, inky-black crystal at the top before taking out one of the clear, thumb-sized crystals from the foam packing. She set the crystal on the desk, collapsed into a padded chair, and considered it.
Technically, she shouldn’t have had raw crystals, but she had the case checked out when they let her go. Her boss said they were letting her keep her pride by not officially firing her, as if that was enough. But it wasn’t. So she hadn’t returned the suitcase of sample crystals or the portable crystal programmer. Most of the crystals were chunky and mottled. Worthless. The architectural center probably didn’t miss them.
Karla took the small, boxy computer out of one of her bins and set it next to the mostly smooth, sharp-edged crystal. With deft hands she found the two deepest nooks in the crystal and rubbed the sticky diodes against them until the plastic wiring molded to almost imperceptible lines in the rocks.
Her fingerprint, held against the glass screen of the mini-computer, beckoned the programmer to life. Three taps of her forefinger unlocked the diagnostics program.
The crystal was well-formed with few imperfections, a good candidate for several programs. Karla could turn it into a cavernous chamber with perfect acoustics or a three-room office center. With a bit of custom coding it might even serve as a medical clinic. But as she stared at it, a certainty that it could be something more grew in her. She just didn’t know what.
With a press of the rice-like button behind her ear, Karla fell into her Connect profile. Full immersion. Old Ironwood faded as easily and completely as New Ironwood always had. Karla thought her way down levels of files, spiraling into herself with graceful weightlessness.
At the bottom of the program was a gray folder with no label—a gift from one of her mind-architect colleagues. The experimental interface allowed her to run interactive crystal simulations. She selected the folder and was immediately overwhelmed with the size of the crystal she had scanned. It was bigger than the diagnostic had estimated, at least ten rooms, stacked in three levels.
Karla entered the first room—perfectly cubed, flawless surfaces. She reached towards a wall, forgetting it was just a simulation, and felt humming vibrations echo through her body.
The old crystal-architects, who had built New Ironwood and whose programs Karla had studied for years, tended to underestimate the potential of crystals. But Karla suspected working with the natural vibrations of these hard creatures would yield better results than forcing them into humanity’s frequencies. She let the crystal’s low hum fill her, echo back out of her until she was sick with the vibrations. Only then did she try to match its drone with an echo in her own throat.
Her hum rose in pitch until she found the major seventh chord. She pitched it down a half-step, pressing it into a minor chord that conflicted with the base note of the room. Karla pressed her hand harder against the wall until she felt a slow cracking. The room was isolated.
Her hand—her real one—flew to her ear, turning off the program and returning her to reality. On the desk the crystal lay in two pieces, one smaller than the nail on her pinkie finger. Karla picked up the tiny piece.
“What do you want to be?” she whispered to the crystal.
She took several passes over several days to shave off a delicate sliver of the crystal. By the time she got it to less than a hundredth of a gram, she knew it intimately enough to whip out a program by hand, the nodes pulsing electricity into the tiny piece, singing it into a sculpture.
At first her sculptures were crude. Karla had to break into an abandoned apartment building and pull apart the plasterboard to dig out some copper wiring. She stretched it into smaller probes, fit for her tiny crystals. After that excursion, the sculptures bloomed—soft edges, hard lines, perfect symmetry.
Her pieces sold well. She started with simple geometric shapes before expanding into flowers. Poppies were her favorite, and she loved the final push to make them glow dark red, their delicate stems a deep green. With time she took commissions: models of a boat, an old car from the days when people drove personal automobiles, a replica of a loved one.
For Tybee’s birthday, Karla gave her a bust cut to showcase the way Tybee had appeared the first day they met. Her hair and skin were clear, but her lips and eyelids shimmered with liquid red.
Tybee looked like a different woman as she placed the sculpture on a shelf in their living room. Her hair was loose rather than pinned up these days, and she rarely wore makeup. Tybee’s relaxation reflected Karla’s. As Karla shed her attachment to the prim formality of New Ironwood, Tybee descended with her, touching the basic rhythm of the old city.
“You’re doing well with these sculptures. You can afford your own apartment now.”
“Are you trying to kick me out?” Karla wrapped her arms around Tybee’s waist.
“No. But you can move back to New Ironwood. Isn’t that what you want?”
Karla pulled back, a laugh dying in her throat. She retreated into her room and returned with the black crystal from her suitcase. The heavy rock clanked against the glass coffee table.
Tybee’s blue eyes went wide as she was pulled into the swirling depths of the crystal.
“I’ve never seen a black crystal.”
“Not many people have. This is what I was working on when they fired me.”
“It is, but to get that rich, full black, I unlock the structure of the crystal. I amplify its internal vibrations and break down its compartments. I release its essence.”
Tybee stared at the crystal, obviously overwhelmed by it. But Karla could tell she didn’t understand.
“They said my project was worthless. Once a crystal turns black, they can’t program it. Worse, its disease, as they called it, spreads to every crystal it comes in contact with. They all turn this color and stop responding to programming. My boss told me I needed to stop trying to figure out what was happening and get back to working on structure. Things we can use. Things they can control and sell.”
Karla looked out the window. The people below moved in chaotic paths, their billowing clothes flowing in the summer breeze. They swirled with a freedom the people of New Ironwood had long forgotten in their perfectly structured city.
“I could have stayed. All I had to do was stop working on my project. But I couldn’t.” Karla ran the pad of her finger over the black crystal as if she was petting a fragile animal.
“Why not?” Tybee asked, reaching out to run her hand over the strange crystal, bumping against Karla’s fingers.
“Because…” Karla hesitated, unsure if she should tell Tybee the truth. “They’re alive. When they’re clear, they’re dormant. But I think I’ve found a way to release their natural state.”
“You mean, they’re conscious?” Tybee pulled back her finger.
Karla shrugged. “In a way. I wanted to figure out what I could do once I learned to speak with the crystals. The sculptures are just the first step. But I want to learn how to communicate with the black ones.”
Karla waited for Tybee to laugh or turn away. But she didn’t. Instead, she ran her hand up Karla’s bare arm and cupped it behind her neck, drawing Karla into a slow and tender kiss. “You will, my artist.”
The city of Old Ironwood commissioned a sculpture from Karla—a giant Ironwood tree in the central park. They wanted a testament to the city that would remain green year round. They supplied her with additional copper and a larger programming console that allowed her to tweak the individual leaves of the massive sculpture.
After weeks of work, more math than singing, she removed the copper probes from the sculpture and her crew stripped away the sheets hanging around her project. A small crowd cheered as the crystal leaves fluttered on delicate stems in the breeze.
“Magnificent!” The mayor tipped Karla with a hundred-year-old bottle of brandy.
After the crowd left, Karla and Tybee sat under Karla’s tree, sipping from the bottle until they were giddy drunk on the sweet liquid. By then Karla had traded out her therms for flowing cotton skirts and crop tops pinned tight beneath a variety of vests. She loved the way the vests clung to her ribcage, hugging her, and laughed at how the folds of her skirt spilled over onto Tybee’s legs, still covered in therms.
“It’s beautiful.” Tybee gazed at the glittering leaves. “So alive.”
“Yeah, it is.” Karla pulled a small black crystal from the pouch at her waist and considered it. She gave Tybee what would have been a wicked grin if the brandy hadn’t turned it lopsided. “Want to know a secret?”
She pressed the crystal to the base of the tree, fitting it into the hollow between two roots. The shimmering black inked out of the small crystal, spreading up the tree trunk and out to the leaves.
Tybee backed away from the black tree that swirled like a galaxy above her. “The mayor’s going to be pissed.”
Karla stood, the white lace at the hem of her skirt tickling her ankles. She placed her hand on the trunk of the tree.
Her lips parted, and she curled her tongue against the roof of her mouth. A low, wild song grew out of her belly, through her vocal chords. She constricted her throat and sent a forceful drone out her mouth and nose. The sound was both high and low, two separate notes bouncing off each other. Slowly, color returned to the tree. The canopy became even more vibrant than it had been, the leaves a thousand shades of green at once, as the blackness dripped down the trunk like a waterfall running over rocks, leaving behind streaks of white and gray and brown.
Karla picked up the black crystal, pocketing it in her leather hip bag.
“Your eyes.” Tybee stumbled back from Karla.
Karla shook her head, closed her eyes. When she opened them the black had gone from them and Tybee stepped forward again.
“My employers were right, the black crystals won’t be programmed. But they are sympathetic to exchange.”
“You talked to it?” Tybee’s eyebrows wrinkled into a sharp point above her nose. “This could change the way they build cities.”
Karla caressed the smooth crystal in her pouch. “Not just cities. These crystals hold ancient knowledge. We could build above ground, strip the minerals from the air. The black crystals could take us into space, if we let them, protected in and guided by living ships.”
“You’ve got to tell someone. Your employers? The government?”
Karla snorted. “They don’t want to hear that the crystals are alive. They want to think it’s all math and science and the will of man. Do you know how much longer it takes to build a relationship with a crystal and learn to talk with it instead of writing some code and overpowering it with electrical impulses? Who cares that they could eventually do more. Right now it would cut into their profit margins.”
“And you’ll just let them go on believing the crystals are inert?”
“Nope.” Karla took the last swig of brandy, her face contorting under the weight of the alcohol.
She took off towards the New Ironwood tunnel, Tybee trailing a few steps behind. Instead of entering the mouth of the enormous tunnel, Karla hiked her skirt up, held the hem in one hand, and used her free hand to keep herself steady as she scrambled up the rocky slope.
By the time they reached the top of the mountain both women were out of breath. Tybee’s therms were cut open around her knees, and Karla’s skirt carried twigs in its fabric. But the scramble hadn’t sobered them. Karla’s reached out to one of the fat crystal columns protruding from the mountain. The columns carried light into the underground city. During one of her rotations it had been her job to keep the short pillars clean. She and Emerson had hiked the hill once a week to wipe down the crystals and spray them with a solution that kept the dust away.
She wondered who had the job now. Some other teenage girl hoping to be the best crystal-architect in the world, no doubt. The girl probably spent her days studying structure and nights dreaming of patterns, finding new ones that weren’t really there. If she hadn’t been drunk, Karla might have felt sorry for the girl as she placed the black crystal on top of a creamy white pillar.
It took a moment for the color to pass through the protective coating, but the two crystals harmonized and the black color oozed down the white crystal, into the ground. Karla imagined it coating each layer of the city in blackness. Her stark white lab, black now. Her pink room, the green parks, the blue medical offices, all of it black. Her fingers flexed, almost sweeping the crystal off of the pillar, but it was too late to turn back. She ignored the churning in her stomach and pressed the crystal harder into the pillar.
“They’ll know it was you,” Tybee whispered, taking Karla’s free hand.
“Yep, but it doesn’t matter. I gave them color, I can take it away.” Karla’s voice was deeper, and her eyes had changed again.
Shouts already echoed up the mountainside, the harbingers of security forces with guns and handcuffs, coming for Karla.
“But they’ll be in darkness. It’ll be chaos.”
Karla buried her face in her lover’s loose hair, breathing in the scent of roses from her shampoo. “This is my gift to them. It’s the only way I can make them admit what these crystals really are.”
The voices grew closer.
Tybee pulled away, ready to run. “Then you’ll turn them back?”
Karla stroked the black column. “No. Then I’ll teach the people to sing with them.”