This is a work of fiction.
“The floors above ground are public,” Red says as she opens the palace door. “This is the hall.”
I step in and see a rectangular room with a bare wood floor. Tables and chairs are stacked against the left-hand wall. There’s no art on the walls, no chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and the room reminds me of a school cafeteria.
Red points to a door on the opposite wall.
“There’s the kitchen. Let’s have lunch.”
“Do we eat in here?” I say, hoping it won’t be just the five of us in this large, empty room.
“No, this is only for banquets. There are tables in the kitchen. Come on and we’ll show you.”
We walk through the hall, our footsteps echoing hollowly.
Red pulls open the door, and I see a large room with sinks, marble counters, wood-burning stoves, a lot of cabinets, and several doors.
Unlike the hall, the kitchen is crowded with men and women, all engaged in food preparation. What strikes me most forcefully is the absence of conversation among them. Pots clang, knives chopp on wooden cutting boards, but not a word is spoken.
“That one’s the ice room,” Red says, pointing to a door.
A man opens it and goes in. A moment later, he emerges carrying a large roast. “We’re having a banquet tonight. The whole city will probably show up.”
“Is the hall big enough?”
“No, but most of them won’t sit there. The whole third floor can accommodate them. There’s another entrance, so they won’t all walk by us while we’re talking.”
“Farmers are coming too,” Blue says.
“They can go on the fourth floor,” Yellow says.
“What’s up there? More tables and chairs?”
“There’s nothing up there,” Red says. “They can bring whatever they want.”
“Is there a fifth floor?”
“Yeah,” Blue says. “Let’s eat.” She waves at a woman who’s just finished chopping some onions. “Bring me roast beef, bread, cheese, and vegetables.”
The woman nods and goes to the ice room.
“Let’s wait in there,” Red says, pointing to another door. “That’s where the tables are.”
The room is small, but otherwise, it’s the same as the hall. The tables and chairs are set up, so it seems more lived in.
“The bathrooms are there,” Red says, pointing to a door.
The woman from the kitchen walks in and puts a tray down on our table.
“Thank you,” I say.
She smiles at me and stays beside our table.
Red waves dismissively, and the woman goes back into the kitchen.
“What’s wrong with you?” I ask her.
“She brought you what you asked for, and really fast, the least you could do is say thank you. I know you’ve been alone a long time, and some awkwardness is fine, but downright rudeness is not.”
“She’s just a train,” Red says. “They care about that social stuff even less than we do.”
“What do you mean, a train?”
Blue says, “They’re trained to do things like laundry and cooking. They don’t talk. At first, we had to print them, but they reproduce so much we hardly have to make any now.”
She starts to make a sandwich.
I don’t feel hungry, but not eating seems disrespectful to the woman who went to so much trouble without even a spec of gratitude from the quadruplets, so I make myself a small sandwich.
At the first bite, all thoughts of not being hungry flee.
Breakfast was the best of what you could buy at the supermarket. This food tastes like fresh air, without even a tiny trace of packaging, preservatives, or pesticides.
“Great, isn’t it?” Red says. “Now you understand why we don’t eat at home much.”
“Why don’t you bring this to your parents?”
“We’d have to cart it all the way back there and then walk it in because we can’t let Homer drive a horse into our basement.”
“You could carry small amounts in.”
“We’re not trains,” Yellow says.
“At home,” Red says, “we cook and stuff. Here, we don’t. Here, we’re somebody. Nobody tells us we’re evil here.”
“I understand. Can I bring them some?”
“I guess so,” Red says. “As long as you can carry it.”
“When can I go back?”
She gives me a strange look.
“Whenever you want.”
I decide to talk about something that seems safer.
“What time does the banquet start?”
Red says, “Seven for us, but people will start coming as soon as they hear about it.”
“Am I allowed on the other floors to meet people?”
“Yeah, sure,” Red says. “You can go anywhere you want.”